Leading When Your Followers March in a Different Direction

By Gary Clayton

Leaders, what do you do when your followers march in a different direction? Do you stay where you are and continue promoting your plan? Or do you try something else - and if so, what?

If your followers ignore your lead, you must rejoin them to regain their trust and devotion.

If your followers ignore your lead, you must rejoin them to regain their trust and devotion.

This leadership dilemma faces Rick Wagoner and the GM board. Once upon a time, GM was the undisputed market leader, even when Toyota and Honda started eating away at its middle class car-buyer base and BMW ate away at its Cadillac luxury base. Most people still believed in what GM and the other US automakers had to say. Congress and the executive branch followed dutifully along, setting national policy to match what Detroit said was needed.

GM’s goals and America’s goals don’t match

GM’s goals were once America’s goals, but GM no longer leads its industry. It trails Toyota and public opinion has turned on the US car makers. America wants growth and a winner, while GM and its powerful unions are willing to slowly shrink. No longer are their statements widely believed and the public seems to feel they’ve given enough to Detroit and its powerful worker unions. GM’s leadership position is a thing of the past.

The auto bailout plan failed in Congress in December, due to apathy on the part of the public and conservative resistance among the GOP legislators. In the end, Bush arranged a short-term bailout through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), while his own party marched away from him.

It’s a shame that GM waited until December to start seriously exploring bankruptcy for two reasons. First, the impending collapse of GM was imminent and it would have been difficult for GM to enter bankruptcy with a solid plan in place. Even looking forward to March or April, they will have to rely more on the good will of the Court and have to fight many defensive actions to get the ultimate deal structured in ways that meet GM’s and it’s creditors’ objectives. Secondly, Wagoner has missed two opportunities (December and now) to be a leader and regain the public’s sympathy.

A leader must have followers

Remember, to be a leader you must attract followers – and Wagoner and GM have squandered their public and legislative support. How would a proficient leader work to regain her followers? You can’t regain them if you aren’t in the same room with them. You must regain your rapport with them and you can’t regain rapport if they don’t see you as one of them. You need to display the same interests as they have, so you better try marching with them to regain their trust. Only then can you influence them again.

This is where Wagoner and GM failed again. Once the public and Congress made serious noises about bankruptcy being a preferred direction, GM should have demonstrated to the public that it was willing to march in that direction – and get out in front so it was seen in the lead again. But it didn’t. Instead, it has published a plan that requires another large public bailout and what appears to be a leisurely pace toward achieving profitability again - if ever.

GM could have built a positive public relations campaign around its march toward bankruptcy, allowing the public to rally around a GM that reflected American values of self-reliance and determination to overcome great odds. Instead, the public sees GM as another big company looking for continuous public welfare to stave off a deserved bankruptcy.

Wagoner has again fallen short as a visionary leader, one that can lead GM to greater prosperity and one that can regain the support of the American public. He is not out in front of public opinion, but is still trailing behind. That’s not a leadership position.

Regaining your followers’ support is crucial to leading again

When your followers desert you, you can’t expect their sympathy or support when tough times hit. You can try to stay on your course, but like GM you may lose what support you have left. A leadership approach that is more likely to succeed is meeting your former followers on their turf: showing support for their values so they may regain trust in you. Only then are they likely to believe that your interests and theirs are compatible. Only then are they likely to follow you again.

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Categories : Approaches & Styles