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The Leader, The Followers, and the Situation

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

If you know history then you’ll probably be aware that Winston Churchill was a brilliant wartime leader, bringing the UK from the depths of despair at the beginning of World War II to being triumphant alongside its allies at the end. He was the undisputed king of wartime leadership at that time. But in peacetime, less people know, he was an average leader at best. Did he lose his touch? Did age and the effects of war wither away his ability to hold a nation together in peacetime? Maybe a little, but the greatest factor that tarnished Churchill’s crown was that the peacetime situation was totally different from that in wartime.

What management science couldn’t tell Churchill at that time was that there is a strong interaction between the Leader , the Followers and the Situation .

The Leader, The Followers and the Situation These three factors form a ‘framework’ in which leaders can judge how effective their leadership could be. And understanding this interaction provides leaders with a useful tool in understanding what changes are required to allow themselves and their followers to be productive.

OK, so what do I mean ?

Well in the example I gave above, it is clear that his personal leadership style was much more suited to wartime situations. Churchill was daring, autocratic, dramatic, outspoken, ambitious, somewhat vain, energetic, and a military genius. It’s no wonder then why the following wartime situation suited him:

  • High stress situation
  • Strong military order
  • A strong sense of a common enemy
  • Low and dwindling resources
  • Large number of interdependent tasks
  • Steady political environment
  • Personal contribution most visible
  • Low unemployment (the forces always created jobs)
  • Reduced civil liberties
  • Patriotism
  • I am sure there are others, but you get the picture. But in peacetime, what was the situation then?

  • No common enemy
  • Low but steady resources – rationing
  • Growth ahead
  • Highly politicized environment
  • High unemployment
  • Contribution not always visible
  • Increased crime rate
  • Reformation
  • These factors above had strong implications for Churchill’s followers (i.e. other politicians and the British population). There are factors of the situations that negatively effected both Churchill and the followers together (such as low resources), there are also factors that benefited Churchill and the followers positively together (such as a common enemy), and then again there are factors in each situation that had the opposite affect on Churchill to that of the followers (such as rationing).

    The point is that as the situation changed, the net benefit to Churchill and the followers changed. Then you have to look at the skills of Churchill. He came from military stock. He was a military writer, a soldier in 19th century wars. In wartime, his expertise in managing armed forces enabled him to act assertively and swiftly. In peacetime, shortly after the war, Churchill and his party lost the vote because the population didn’t believe they could reform the country quickly and effectively using policies on new housing and the welfare state, for example.

    Enough of Churchill now.

    The essence of the Leader-Follower-Situation Framework is that each component interacts with the others, and the strengths and weaknesses of each are subjective. Situations are chaotic, and they change constantly. Leaders have the authority to change each component. So do Followers.

    For example, Followers can band together to force change upon leaders. Industrial action is an example. If the followers perceive that leaders are creating or not actively resolving a bad situation, they can force a change in leadership as easy, if not more easily, than they can change the situation. Democracy is rife with this behavior. How often is the leader of a country or an organization blamed for the situation? Quite often, actually. Followers expect a lot from their leaders.

    As stated, what’s important to remember is that the Leader, the Followers and the Situation all interact with each other. If a situation changed, then the interaction between followers and leaders can change dramatically.

    Leaders who grasp this have an advantage over those that don’t. Why?

  • Leaders can change their own behavior – in order to more align to the interaction of followers and the situation. For example if during a recession, followers look for more assurance then leaders can develop skills for creating more certainty, or eliminate behaviors that create uncertainty. For example, a leader who speaks their mind about wild possibilities could stop
  • Leaders can change the situation – if leaders and followers are more productive under stress, a leader can engineer crises to increase uncertainty, pressure and stress. For example the leader would declare failures that needed drastic recovery, or set aggressive targets
  • Leaders can change the followers – if the situation suits the follower’s skills and experience, yet the followers are not productive, a new team can be recruited as replacements. That is almost certainly not possible in most situations, so a leader can develop team members to be more aligned to the behaviors of the leader and factors of the situation. For example a leader who prefers structure bit his followers don’t could place his team onto Project Management courses and provide incentives for achievement.
  • So I’ll end by saying that leaders must understand that this is the reality of any given organization – the situation and followers have a major influence on their performance as perceived by the outside world. Ignoring the needs and potential of followers is idiocy. Not keeping your eye on the situation as it changes is equally idiotic. So leaders must be able to connect with followers to understand their mood and their initiative, so building close and meaningful relationships with followers is a must. Leaders must have information sources about the environmental factors. And of course, they must have awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses.


    Footnote: I am not suggesting that Churchill was infallible in wartime. Some of his decisions and interruption in military affairs were disastrous. But the net result of his leadership was undoubtedly a shining example of how a leader thrives in the right situation.


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    About the author /


    Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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