The Good-Enough Leader/Follower Relationship

There is no one-type of leader. Not even a small set of types of leaders. But defining them as LSTKs and GELs makes all the sense to me and has been useful over the years.

As I watched a video where Simon Sinek speaks about Introvert Leaders, you can find it here, I was reminded of some concepts I wrote about some time ago. Let me share a bit of it with you.

Leadership is a group phenomenon. Any group will look for a leader, either formal or informal, either temporary or permanent, but in every situation, a group or a team or a people will look for someone to follow. Leadership is not a character trait, nor a learned skill, nor a method or a set of behaviors. Leadership is a kind of relationship that is always sought by groups and leaders. And there are probably thousands of types of leaders. Leadership is too complex and depends on so many details — just as any complex relationship, especially a group relationship — that it is very limitative and naïve to believe we can categorize them in a shortlist of types. But we can look into some concepts of psychology and analyze a few traits in different leaders — or a few traits in the relationships of leadership between leaders and followers. Of course, all of what I have said is pretty much controversial and expresses my beliefs and studies over the years.

So, there’s this kind of leader that we can call a ‘Leader-that-is-supposed-to-know’ (LSTK). This is actually the first kind of leader we encounter in our lives. As we come out of our warm and forgiving mother’s womb to face the dark disappointing frustrations of reality, we are vulnerable and ignorant. We look to our parents for guidance. They are the ones who will tell you what to do, what are the dangers, and the protocols, our rights, and our responsibilities. They are the ones ‘supposed-to-know’. They are our first leaders and our first LSTKs. We obey them implicitly and they are the examples we follow and the sculptors of our early behaviors. When we grow up, we are sometimes tempted to look for these kinds of leaders again. Individuals who will overcome our vulnerabilities at any time and who will be able to tell us here and there what we should do and how we should behave. Some leaders will in fact believe this should be their main role: know what each follower should do and demand it of them — sometimes reprimanding them for not knowing in advance what they should do. Treating their followers like children, they still get frustrated when others don’t act as adults themselves. This replication of a parent-child relationship in a workplace or other adult environment is considerably misguided. It is generally a tragic mistake from both leaders and followers, and for both leaders and followers.

There is another kind of leader we can call the ‘Good-enough Leader’ (GEL). Contrary to our superficial infantile assessment, a good mother or father is not simply an adult ‘supposed-to-know’, is not simply someone who knows what we are supposed to do and demands it of us. A ‘Good-enough’ mother has a much more comprehensive role — she is able to contain anguish and anxiety, to support the efforts of the baby to fend for his/herself, and most important of all be able to convey to the baby a positive self-image — in summary, one of Love. A ‘Good-enough Leader’, as a ‘Good-enough Mother’, does not assume knowing everything nor what a follower should or not do every time. A GEL will help the followers to develop their own roles and support them in their efforts to grow and assume responsibilities themselves. Doing this, the GEL incurs a daunting risk: he/she will have to face the unrealistic expectations of the followers who may want determination, orders, no pain or responsibility, magic solutions to all problems, success in all situations.

These unrealistic expectations are a major trap we followers must be aware of as we choose our leaders. It is easy to be fooled or pushed into relationships characterized by LSTK leadership — after all, it may be convenient at an earlier time to receive clear-cut orders on what to do, and be able to always know who to follow. But it is a fools’ errand. In the end, a GEL will be a much more effective and complete leader, even though his/her style may be more uncomfortable and sophisticated at times — avoiding the temptations of simple but self-defeating or basically wrong top-down decisions.

Thinking about LSTKs and GELs has been useful to me over the years as I have to decide how and why to follow this or that leader, and how to help this or that leader or follower. It is the following that makes a leader powerful and so deciding on who and why to follow someone is deciding to whom I will give my power to. And that’s a major responsibility. Followers are not free of responsibility in these relationships at any time. The economy of power exists, and it is everywhere — as there are costs and benefits in any relationship. The less illuded we are about that, the better.

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Bruno Martins Soares

I’m a Business and Communications Consultant. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years. Find me and my books at brunomartinssoares.com