Leadership and building coalitions of support

You can’t be a leader without followers, says Kate Kearins. It’s a bit lonely leading yourself – and a bit futile if you don’t do what you tell yourself to do.

I think I’m a reasonably good 2IC. As a management professor, I know a bit about leadership theory, and on a good day I practice it well. Like most people, I sometimes make mistakes. These next three months, though, my boss is away – and I am hoping not to make too many mistakes.

One of the Blake leaders, my manager, Professor Geoff Perry PVC and Dean of Business and Law at AUT, is a very good boss. I have big shoes to fill for a time. Thankfully his period of leave is planned – as was mine, to wrap around his – organisational priorities first. Good for continuity.

A piece of advice Geoff gave me early on was that leadership is about building coalitions of support. I am not sure where he got that from. But it fitted in with what I knew about recent leadership thinking being about relational praxis. That means leadership is all about relationships.

Stated differently, it means you can’t be a leader without followers. Well at least one follower, preferably more, if you want to achieve a bunch of things. It’s a bit lonely leading yourself – and a bit futile if you don’t do what you tell yourself to do.

So followers – how do you get them and what do you need to do with them? I’ll try to not make this seem like the bleedingly obvious Leadership 101.

Leaders need a cause or a purpose to rally the troops around. Something people will see as worthwhile – worth expending their energy on. It doesn’t have to be something easy. In fact it won’t be or folk will likely have already conquered that mountain.

Achieving success shouldn’t be impossible either. Social entrepreneurs typically engage with seemingly intractable problems. And, to a greater or lesser extent, with often extremely limited resources, they mobilise people to the cause.

Followers need to identify with the cause or purpose. Easier said than done. Maybe you have an ill-defined purpose. The cause is not real. None of you have the right skills or the patience to learn them. Maybe all you see are roadblocks. There is a real issue in misdirecting energy on what can’t be done rather than on what can.

Strategy gurus Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad some years back used the analogy of knowing where you were heading when setting out on a car journey. They advocated having the destination clearly in mind.

Elsewhere I have written about organisations not having worked out where their so-called journey to sustainability would logically end – destination undefined.
So with that thinking done knowing where you are heading, the problem as these strategy gurus laid it out, was down to working out where to get what was needed along the way. Putting in place the more detailed plans as you go.

If you take the analogy further, the kids in the car don’t get so bored if you have them involved in enjoying some of the adventures along the way.

Work out and agree some milestones with the team. Imagine what success looks like and celebrate success when you achieve those milestones.

Engage the team in evaluation and setting of new goals. Be imaginative – and accept good creative solutions. They are often what can differentiate your offering. But they also generate goodwill among the team.

A final point is to recruit for, and encourage, diversity in the team. It’s all too easy to recruit people like ourselves. They are probably what we need least of.

Complementary skills in the team turn followers into leaders. Formally or informally shared leadership roles and responsibilities build capacity. While there is a danger good people might leave once they have leadership on their CV, there is perhaps more danger they might get bored without those opportunities in their current job.

Leadership as building coalitions of support – probably a lot of aspects to this you already knew. Having it as a wee mantra might be a good reminder to avoid being alone and exposed as a leader of none. 

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