The Invisible Leadership We Need to Talk About

Many of us want different dynamics & agreements in our organisations, communities, in social discourse. Moving away from pyramid hierarchies to more circular models. For this shift to happen, it is not sufficient for new leadership to emerge. What is needed at exactly the same time is a change to what we used to call followership.

Can you see the guy, who started it all? Today I am not writing about him. And the one who followed? This piece is not about him either. And yes, you are right to think it is also not about the crowds, that followed. This one is about the person who recorded it all and decided to put it online. Without them, the most popular Youtube videos in category “Leadership” would be many smart-looking people flapping their hands in a very eloquent way.

For months now I have been zooming in on the less visible manifestation of leadership. I call it followership. Being part of many collectives, groups, meetings, people trying to create a new paradigm, I experience teams coming together in vastly different ways. There are meetings, where it is clear who is the vision holder. There are those, where people seem to be not hearing each other. Those, where we compete, even though we wish we weren’t. Those, where people respect & value each other’s contributions. And then there are the meetings, where everything seems to be a natural consequence of what happened before, and it all feels slightly too magical to be true.

On my quest to understand, what makes teams engage in collective dynamics, that create generative spaces I stopped for a while with a couple of thoughts. Allow me to share them with you.

Showing up

If you are connected to a purpose of bringing people together either for passing your talents or for creating something new, what your heart might be anxious about is, if anybody will show up. Once they do — will they return for session two? If this happened — will you manage to get to a place, where you extend the vision to be no longer only yours, but to become co-owned by a group committed to advance it? If you are that lucky, then you probably truly had something of value to share, have found your crowd and your timing was spot-on. But you also had those, who showed up. People who return, who join you on that journey, who are there even if sometimes the quality of our encounter is neither easy nor fantastic. This is a shout out to all of you guys out there. I hope you know you make all the difference. You make the difference on days, when many of us question “Does it make sense? Is it just another thing no-one needs? Should I continue?”

A person we look up to joining our meeting, people we might not know well, but we feel a deep connection with, those who have been there all the way — think of all the times they made a difference in your work. Made you open up with more courage & curiosity to explore deeper layers of a challenge.

… And now, think of where you show up, and whom you make a difference for. Step into how powerful it is to show up for something, for a cause, for somebody.

Witnessing & sharing out

It is saying “I see you”. “I see you across time. With your struggles. With your desires. With your longing. With your beauty.” It is showing up to each other as we are in a moment, holding our arms stretched out to hold a broader context. It is saying “You are what you are”, “This too shall pass”, “You belong”, “You have come a long way, babe”.

Witnessing is one of the most generous acts of kindness. We do it by telling somebody “I see the work you put into it”. We say it by telling “Take your time. When you are ready to come back there will be place for you.” We tell it by asking questions & creating stage for others to be seen.

Being part of Kelvy Bird’s & Alfredo Carlo’s Visual Practice Modules this March I was deeply moved by the work of a team of 20 behind the scenes. People from all continents coming together in less than two weeks, to support a design translated from an in-person gathering to an online format. Many of us had never met in person. Many of us had never met before. Kelvy was the only one who knew each one on the team. And still, this was by far the collaboration filled with the most trust & kindness I had ever experienced. It was transformational to the heart & the social field. I wanted to know, how this quality happens. How you make it be. And I wanted others to hear about it and be able to benefit from it.

I invited Kelvy to share in a 30 minutes interview during a Crash Course on Remote Visual Facilitation Mara Callaert & myself offered mid March in response to Covid-19 and people needing to suddenly work from home. As it turned out, what we recorded was a video on love-driven leadership.

In your world, who needs being seen to support their processes? Who needs a stage you might be able to offer? Who might be the one holding you as you become?

Acting from

There is an interesting thought I am experimenting with, which says: “Followership can be implemented & have transformative impact, almost irrespective of the leadership.*” I am experiencing it showing up to meetings and bringing a quality I often hear called feminine leadership, and that for me is deeply inspired by Gisela Wendling’s work, especially the notion of “making all belong”.

Much of my work is about breaking out of the binary. In the case of leading & following, my curiosity is around exploring conditions, that invite flow, where no-one is leading & no-one is following, but we are all part of a beautiful dance, serving the purpose of our work.

If this is the framing, we are getting close to a place where followers have a responsibility equal to the one leaders have. Where it becomes clearer, how countervailing this dynamics is, how the way we lead impacts how we follow, and how we follow impacts the way we lead.

This year, with the Leadership Festival Community we are zooming in on collective action. On what it needs to move as a group in service of a purpose, that benefits (ideally) all. We are very aware, that the need to know how to do it well is a burning desire of many, committed to pioneer work of redesigning agreements based on which we show up in the world. And we know, even when intentions are true & transparent, when action begins it does get messy. And it needs us all showing up, not just from the comfort of an armchair, that allows me to be a spectator reacting to a broadcast. But in a way, where we all are in it together, showing up craft-fully, gracefully, from our sensitivity and our power. And learn to make it all belong.

Even if you sometimes believe the person in front has their game together and does not need your support — how you follow makes a difference. Next time you show up, sense into how you do it, experiment with it, and allow yourself to feel what impact it has.

“A group can only get as far as the weakest link. And the weakest link turns it around if they participate. Just participating in the smallest way, on energetic level, even when you are not saying anything makes a difference.”

Mary Gelinas, a fellow GLEN blogger

A closing word of caution: The shadow of too much following

If you mostly learn, collect, harvest, humbled by those before you, but you do not embrace the courage to act from what you learned, you effectively block the flow of knowledge, rejecting to take your place in the order of things. It is yours to act from what you have learned, to struggle passing it on in a way that sparks curiosity in others, to go through the horrors of feeling awkward, feeling incomplete, feeling like an impostor, and doing it. Be scared & do it anyway. The above is a note to self.

“You cannot not lead.”

Parker Palmer

* Saying this, I also bow to the limits followership has in certain situations, when we are overpowered in a way, that makes it clear a more dramatic change is needed. I am curious, what are your experiences around it.

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Karolina Iwa

Karolina Iwa

Senior Facilitator. Co-Founder of Leadership Festival. Exploring Leadership & Organisational Culture. Making companies thrive.