I recently got in to a conversation about the Twitter phenomenon and in particular about follower numbers. My colleague wondered about why some people have many followers yet don’t seem to say anything that he thought was useful. It got me thinking about situations that you often see in the workplace where individuals within the organisation can influence the thinking of others without having any positional power or authority. These people can often be a thorn in the leaderships side and I have heard many managers complain about them or try to marginalise their influence in some way. Of course it never works and often backfires.
I saw a classic example of this once in a small chemical producer in Holland. I had been asked to look in to their I.R issues as they had a lot of strikes which caused massive disruptions to production. I spent some time with the managers of the site and every one of them told me stories about an individual who they branded as a “trouble-maker”. When I dug in to their stories it seemed that this individual unearthed and made public things that the managers didn’t want him to. He spoke up about things at town hall meetings (which got stopped as a result). He followed up on things that went wrong, asked questions about safety and decisions that had been taken on ‘little things’ (like spending money on production instead of working conditions). If any of the operators asked this guy anything he would always get back to them and everything he told them turned out to be true.
As I listened I liked the sound of this guy. After a day or so of stories I told a meeting of all of the middle managers that they should promote this guy. In fact they should promote him above a lot of them! Needless to say this didn’t go down well.
I told them that this ‘trouble-maker’ was showing leadership. What he said struck a chord with the people around him. A chord that wasn’t being struck by the managers. Managers who spent their time in meetings or in front of computers and didn’t walk about their factory to see what was going on, to listen to the troops, to feel the pulse of the organisation. He was also believable because what he said turned out to be true, in “plain mans” language with no spin. It might not have been sophisticated or complicated but it spoke to what the people needed in a way that they needed. Needless to say the managers didn”t.
In twitter, people follow those who say something that resonates with them and they re-tweet (pass on) the things that resonate most. Its a living modern example of leadership and followership at work.
If your workplace had a table of who your people really followed or really listened to, would that table have your leadership team in it? Would you be in it?