Earlier this month, Nancy Lublin published an article in Fast Company titled "Do Something: Let's Hear It for the Little Guys". In it she expertly dissects our cultural obsession with leaders and champions the unsung role of the follower, going so far as to state that honoring them is "the sanest, smartest way to run" a company. I couldn't agree more! And she need look no further than improvisational theater to see how honoring the follower creates value and cohesion.
One of improv's holy of holies is 'active listening'. People creating something together must attend to each others verbal and non-verbal "offers" – ideas for a scene or story. As active listeners, improvisers are obliged to engage with offers, explore them and follow them where they may lead. We become responsibly responsive to each other. Each of us has a mission to help develop offers, but an offer will originate in only one person's mind at a time. Once it's offered, we all must support and follow it and the player offering it forth.
"Follow the follower" is the advice given by the legendary improvisation guru Viola Spolin. This phrase means that leading involves remaining active as a listener, no matter what. The mantles of leadership and followership shift throughout the ensemble by means of willing, improvisational give-and-take. The offer is not a command or instruction from the boss-improviser to the other improvisers. Changes to the story often will emerge from the supporting characters. Thus even the "leader" is following the whole group's moves. The group itself becomes a collective follower.
The same is true in business. Leadership thinkers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have long affirmed that great business leaders enable others to act, fostering collaboration by giving power away and offering visible support to their followers. So, while a leader is charged with creating and communicating a galvanizing vision, or common purpose, of the firm, business leaders can only lead if they are actively sharing with, or listening to, their followers and, just as importantly, if the followers are dynamically supporting and providing feedback to the leader. The same is true in improv. Just as a troupe of actors must follow each other and also react to the audience, the business leader and staff must remain actively in touch with each other as a symbiotic community if the firm is to move ahead.
Mary Parker Follett, the pioneering organizational behaviorist whose concept of non-coercive power sharing ushered in a new age of management theory, states that followers have the very important and active role of keeping a leader in control of a situation and "govern by consent" by both serving the agreed upon common purpose and continually offering suggestions and direction from below. They also have the responsibility to be a leader in the areas in which they do have control – leadership, she adds, given and modeled for them by the capital L leader. Or, simply put, leaders always encourage leadership in those who follow.
This spirit of collaborative "power sharing" is just as important on the stage as it is in the boardroom. If everyone were to suddenly claim focus (or leadership) at the same time, then there would be no active listening-no critical mass of improvisational energy driving one offer forward. If there is no active listening and no shared focus, then there is no community. With no community ensemble, then we have chaos. We would have (God forbid) a stage full of disparate one-man shows. Performance groups making stories up together need to make each other look good in order for the game, story, or scene to go anywhere coherent.
In the theater, as in business, momentum and cohesion evaporate if there is no single clear story being told at a time. That can only happen if the ensemble, the followers AND the leader, willingly and creatively serve a common purpose through clear and consistent collaboration.