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Gary Winters

Leadership Coach

Follower Fatigue

(Originally posted in 2010)

Organizational leaders are facing a real threat to their ability to rally their people: follower fatigue. The past two or three years have been witness to an unprecedented wave of crises  that have reduced everyday folk to a state of resignation, apathy, and/or bitterness.

We’ve all had to find our way in the midst of:

  • The worst recession in modern times
  • The collapse of the housing markets
  • The titanic struggles of huge organizations to stay survive and the debate over whether we should save them (too big to fail?)
  • The worst unemployment (and under-employment) figures in memory
  • Massive increases in reported instances of fraud
  • The impact of terrorism on our way of life, our laws, our politics, and our traditions
  • The eruption of the worst environmental disaster ever in the Gulf
  • Far too many political (and other) leaders exposed as hypocrites and cheats
  • The rise and increasing popularity of fringe politics and paranoia

Indeed, it’s difficult to find much good news over the past two or three years, and I believe that “ordinary” people are really struggling to find leaders and organizations to believe in and trust.

Think about it. How much do you really trust…

  • Your elected officials?
  • Your bank?
  • Your oil company?
  • Your food suppliers?
  • Your broker?
  • Your realtor?
  • The people you’ve admired in the public eye – sports figures, entertainers, and the like?

Honest, dedicated, everyday leaders are struggling in every organization I visit. From CEOs and city managers, to directors, managers, front-line supervisors and team leaders, they face a crisis of confidence and a crisis of trust. Fewer and fewer people are willing to rally behind whoever is “in charge” anymore.

We just don’t believe in our leaders and the psychological contract we make with organizations like we used to. It’s the dirty little secret – the elephant in the room – in most organizations.

We’ve been lied to, stolen from, ignored, manipulated, had our trust violated, and been used in so many ways it’s impossible to keep track of all of them.

It’s with great skepticism if not cynicism that employees listen to their leaders talk about their vision, mission and values. And who can blame them? Everywhere you look the cultural glue that holds us together is drying out and chipping off.

As a people, we’re wounded and suffering. That which has sustained us in the past – looking to and following leaders who could forge a path through the wilderness – doesn’t seem as viable anymore.

Every leader is doubted, viewed with suspicion, and taken with “a grain of salt” nowadays. The art of leadership has become much more complicated.

Whatever your position of authority and leadership, you simply can’t count on people to automatically believe you, trust you, or follow you, just because you’re “in charge.” Those days are over. People are increasingly, and consciously, acting in their own self-interest, finding their own way, and rejecting their allegiances to something bigger than themselves.

  • They don’t believe it when they hear that “we’ll keep layoffs to a minimum.”
  • They don’t believe it when they hear “we’ll never sell the organization.”
  • They don’t believe it when they hear that their retirement program is “safe.”
  • They don’t believe it when they hear “people are our most important resource.”

If ever there was a crisis not just of leadership, but for leadership, it’s now.

Leaders must recognize that their “followers” aren’t going to respond to slick mission statement “sound bites” anymore. They aren’t going to place their trust in their organizations like they used to. They aren’t going to assume that if they perform well, they will be well-rewarded for that performance.

What people will respond to is truth, honesty, transparency, and leaders who engage in straight talk, who are willing to lead from principle rather than policy, who are empathetic and encouraging. What we want from our leaders these days – more than ever – is the sense that they can be trusted.

Just as all great leaders recognize that they stand on the shoulders of people who have preceded them, they must also recognize that they inherit the terrible reputation that dishonest, self-serving miscreants who enjoyed positions of power have passed to them. Maybe it’s not fair, maybe it’s unfortunate, but it is, as they say, what it is.

Leadership: it’s a tough job, and someone has to do it. Those of us doing it have to do a better job than we’ve been doing.

I’ll close with this thought: you don’t have any “followers” anymore.

You have people – passionate, jaded, caring, wounded people to lead. What hasn’t changed – what will never change – is our search for meaning, for things to believe in, for connections to something larger than ourselves. That’s the real challenge for leaders. Can you help your people discover (or uncover) what matters to them most of all?

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