Leaders take on great risk in the day-to-day performance of their jobs because their success is so dependent on the efforts of their followers – often people not of their choosing. For the most part, leaders don’t get the luxury of “getting the right people on the bus.” Instead they are provided a destination, handed keys, and pointed to a bus full of people picked by someone else – often with some other destination in mind. In the broadest terms we think it is critical to recognize that a big part of what leaders do every day is invest in their followers – they invest time, energy, and a range of tangible and intangible resources. They advocate for their teams, they fight for resources, and so on. It seems only natural that leaders would expend this effort when they felt it was on behalf of a group that could deliver a good return on their investment. Logically, an estimation of the worthiness of the followers is something a leader might quite rationally calculate in determining what investment should be made.
We often equate leadership as a responsibility that comes with a formally held position – leaders are expected to lead because it is part of the job description. However, much of the leadership that takes place is emergent. It happens when an individual recognizes the opportunity to step forward to lead. When a unit commander is wounded, when the captain of an athletic team is injured, when a boss is on an extended trip away from the office, a leadership void is created. These “volunteers” take on the risks of leadership when they elect to step up. In situations like this, it seems logical that before stepping up a volunteer leader would also engage in some calculus to understand if the risks of action were less daunting than the risks of inaction. The perceived quality of the followers becomes an important consideration in an individual’s decision whether or not to emerge as a leader.
So whether the focus is on a formal leader or one that might be expected to volunteer there good reason to believe a consideration in how enthusiastic a leader is – and how successful a leader will ultimately be – is in no small part a function of how they perceive the rest of the team. The question we want to use to challenge people early in their careers is how will you demonstrate you are worth your leader’s investment? In other words, why should anyone lead you?
Nathan Bennett is the Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at Georgia State University’s J Mack Robinson College of Business.