What leaders can learn from those that follow

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 14:10

In today's corporate world, leaders are the heroes. Leaders take people to new places and levels of performance that they otherwise couldn't have reached on their own. Leaders are also the instigators and executors of change. As such, good leadership is a valuable asset in pretty much every commercial sphere. So it's not surprising that leadership training and studies have tended to focus solely on the attributes of an effective leader.

Do you know why people follow the leader?

In our daily pursuit to master the art of leadership, many forget the other half of the equation - there is no leader without at least a single follower. Leadership researchers seem to forget this key point and instead focus on the attributes they believe are inherently attractive to followers. Yet, people who follow leaders have their own identities, cultures, backgrounds and personalities and many are as driven to follow as some leaders are to lead. If we are able to understand what drives people to follow, leaders will have a much better idea of what it means to lead.

Familial ties and leadership insights

For years, leaders have been understood through the analogy of the parent, be it the father or mother. While many who use it believe this is simply a convenient comparison, could there be more to this than meets the eye? To answer this question, we need to travel all the way to Vienna, 100 years into the past. During the course of Sigmund Freud's work, the grandfather of psychoanalysis encountered an interesting enigma: Both his male and female patients kept falling in love with him. He concluded that people were making connections between his role as a psychoanalyst and significant people in their past. So for instance, during therapy, people were transferring experiences and emotions from previous relationships into the present. Freud termed this dynamic transference.

Freud was one of the first researchers to identify that people tended to project unconscious images and emotions into their relationships with others. Unfortunately, not much is known about transference outside the clinics and lecture halls of psychoanalysis. Yet, transference can tell leaders a lot about organisational behaviour. 

Managing transference to improve productivity

In recent years, a number of studies have shown that transference can be positive and even correlate with higher productivity. For instance, if an employee believes they will be cared for in a parental way, they may work harder to ensure they attain approval. Paternalistic leadership is a clear example of this. This paradigm relies on the belief that a leader knows best, due to either their skill set, experiences or information. Say for instance an employee sees their boss in a parental way, they could, as a result, put all their efforts into pleasing the leader. If the manager is able to ensure these transferred expectations are met, the employee will continue to be productive to the benefit of the organisation. Yet, as Ben Dattner of Dattner Consulting points out not all forms of transference are positive. In other cases, a worker may view his boss as a brotherly competitor or an argumentative father.

In many cases, transference is not easy to see or even understand. The formal setting of the workplace is not always conducive to an open environment. In conditions such as these, leaders can sometimes be unaware of why a typically confident employee loses their nerve when you enter a room. Or why two level-headed employees compete like siblings in certain situations. In response, leaders need to be able to understand how transference works. Leaders must have the awareness to adapt to these relationships and utilise these for the betterment of the employee and the organisation.