Courageous Followership and Horizontal Organizations

The Courageous Follower model is very clear: followers do not serve leaders; rather leaders and followers serve the common purpose.

Yet, because society is largely organized around hierarchical structures, this model talks extensively about how positional followers relate to positional leaders: how followers help leaders use power beneficially, and their responsibilities when power is being misused or abused by those leaders.

Now along comes the “Occupy” movement with its commitment to horizontal organization. Technically, this is known as anarchist from the Greek an (without) and archos (leader). It is a movement that rejects the role of leader. Is courageous followership relevant in this context?

If there are no leaders then there can be no followers. This does not mean, however, that there is no leadership. Leadership scholars from a conference I participated in visited the Occupy London encampment and reported that, far from being leaderless, the movement was leaderful. Leadership came from every point. Therefore, so did followership.

How does this relate to courageous followership? I believe it relates in two ways. First, the horizontal organization philosophy is committed to consensus. This requires coming to decisions that most people agree with and that all can live with. Sometimes followership requires subordinating one’s own preferences, as long as the chosen path doesn’t violate ethical values.

Second, just as positional leaders can misuse power, so can horizontal groups. It requires as much courage to stand on one’s principles in the face of peer pressure as it does in the face of positional power. In a non-hierarchical setting this might better be called courageous citizenship, but it requires the same strength and skill-set to stand up and speak out as does courageous followership.

I believe that the greater use of horizontal organization improves large group dynamics. I also believe that on very large scales there will be a natural need for vertical organization and representative democracy. One interesting effort to combine these forms of human organization is found in a system known as sociocracy, to which I was recently introduced by Sheella Mierson and John Buck of the Sociocracy Consulting Group.

Perhaps it is time to seriously explore such alternatives. Better systems for the distribution of power reduce the level of courage needed by all group members to speak from their ethical centers in service of the organization’s mission within the context of its social responsibility. Nevertheless, courageous followership, or courageous citizenship, will still be required whatever blend of these organizing systems are used.