Image for The Power of Leadership Fueled by Honest Feedback

There are reams of suggestions on how to be a leader. Actively seeking honest feedback isn’t usually one of them.

Standard advice ranges from accessibility to clear communication to positivity. They are all important characteristics of good leaders, but they don’t automatically translate into loyal followers. And, after all, leaders aren’t really leaders unless they have followers.

Earning respect, building trust, empowering team members and ensuring accountability are what leaders must aim to do. An unsuspecting trajectory is actively, sincerely and repetitively seeking honest feedback from followers.

The Donald Trump phenomenon of followership is not new. Charismatic personalities can be mesmerizing and attract followers who exhibit cultish, unwavering devotion.
These personalities usually have an agenda – to win votes, sell products or proselytize religion. Their style of “leadership” is transactional, not team building. They aren’t in the honest feedback business. Some aren’t always in the honesty business.
Most charismatic personalities are spellbinding speakers who ignore, dismiss or resent honest feedback. Winston Churchill said witty things to put down critics. PT Barnum said outlandish things to entice customers. Trump baits critics to get media coverage.
People in leadership positions may be tempted to employ a charismatic style. For a very few, it might work, at least for a while. Think Elon Musk. But it is hard to sustain that style in a professional environment. Charismatic leaders tend to be blunt and critical. Team members become disillusioned, unfaithful or fed up with one-way, negative communication. The number of tell-all books about Trump and the 2020 election outcome are evidence this style isn’t a winning strategy.

The actionable question isn’t “How am I doing?” It is “How are we doing?” This isn’t a gentle, polite question. It is a question that invites criticism as well as plaudits. Follow-up questioning and dialogue can reveal deeper layers of support, concern or doubt.

Asking questions is all about feedback. Honest feedback is what distinguishes leaders who act on what they’ve learned. They absorbed information, considered it and acted on it. Leaders may follow ideas suggested by their teams. Leaders may go in a different direction, using the feedback they received to improve and sharpen the reasoning for their decision.

Followers don’t want to be minions. They want a voice to express ideas and share practical experiences. Listening to those voices is a powerful way to cultivate followership to your leadership. Effective leadership often depends on leading followers where they are willing to go.

Barbara Kellerman, writing for the Harvard Business Review in 2007, noted, “There is no leader without at least one follower – that’s obvious. Yet the modern leadership industry, now a quarter-century old, is built on the proposition that leaders matter a great deal and followers hardly at all.”

Her HBR article says followers typically are subordinates, with less power, authority and influence than those higher up in the pecking order. They may follow to keep their jobs or because it’s the easier thing to do. Sometimes followers just don’t follow. Resistance or lackluster followership don’t bode well for leaders.

In the 1970s, “managing by walking around” became popular. The concept involved managers getting out of their offices or cubicles and mingling with workers to listen and learn. This might include impromptu conversations at coffee breaks or stopping to ask how a new production line was functioning. It was a form of seeking honest feedback.

Employee surveys with anonymized responses can generate complaints, insights and practical suggestions. Leaders can show they are listening and learning by acting on both complaints and suggestions.

Face-to-face interviews can be especially productive if leaders turn the sessions into a comfortable conversation rather than seeming like a covert performance review. The body language of leaders can make all the difference in conveying interest instead of obligation. The tone of the conversation will be set by the first impressions of followers, which is why leaders should project sincerity and an interest in hearing honest feedback. It’s also important for leaders to maintain eye contact and avoid distractions, such as glancing at a smartphone or shuffling papers.

Followers don’t want to be minions. They want a voice to express ideas and share practical experiences. Listening to those voices is a powerful way to cultivate followership to your leadership.

Communication skills by followers can vary greatly, so leaders must make each follower feel comfortable. Leaders also should recognize and adapt to different communication styles in an increasingly diverse workforce. Some might be less self-conscious and more forthcoming by sharing their feedback in writing, which then could be discussed face-to-face. The only way to get honest feedback is to encourage honest feedback, in whatever form that may take.

Perhaps the most important action to achieve honest feedback is honest interest in receiving it. This requires checking leadership ego at the door. There is always a distance between leaders and followers, and it is the leader’s job to bridge that distance, usually by showing a genuine personal interest in each interaction.

Honest feedback isn’t produced on an assembly line. It takes individual effort, emotional intelligence and a willingness to hear the good and the bad. It takes courage to accept honest feedback and a depth of character to act on that feedback. The reward can be loyal, trusting followers who view themselves as teammates, not just followers.