The Folly of Followership

no followerIn a New York Times article from yesterday, Susan Cain argues that college admissions offices are overemphasizing “leadership” and should give more attention to “followership.” (She also gives a nod to teamwork and independent thought.) In the comments, people spoke up against this concept of “followership”; to many, including me, it poses as the next bad Big Idea. Instead of seeking “leaders,” “followers,” “team players,” or “solo thinkers,” colleges should seek young people with intellectual accomplishment, promise, and interest. The challenge is to identify them properly; the concept of “followership” will not help.

To begin with, Cain frames the problem incorrectly. It isn’t that admissions offices have come to emphasize leadership above all else. Rather, when looking over thousands of applications, they seek qualities that stand out. Leadership is one of them; knowing this, students emphasize their leadership roles, often to excess. But leadership takes many forms; when writing college recommendations, I have sometimes emphasized a student’s intellectual leadership in the classroom or outside. Some students lead through their work; to write an outstanding essay (that goes beyond any “rubric” into the subject itself) is to exercise leadership.

One problem is that students face pressure to stand out in some way. They have no guarantee that their desired colleges will single them out. Even outstanding grades and test scores are no guarantee; many students are now entering college with two years of calculus, or with experience in a biomedical lab, or something else beyond the usual school curriculum. Some worry about whether they will have a chance if, say, they choose to play in a youth orchestra instead of enrolling in the intensive calculus course that their peers are taking.

As a result of such pressure (as Cain duly notes), students begin shaping their resumes for the sake of being seen. This is nothing new; I remember such a tendency in graduate school. I was often told that I should attend this or that conference because it would look good on the resume; that was one of the reasons that I decided not to go into academia. But it is especially painful to see teenagers under such pressure. A possible solution would be to limit the number of applications per student and to limit the Common App itself. Also, colleges could send clearer messages to students about what they seek.

But “followership”–even understood subtly–is misleading and potentially harmful. Cain quotes Robert Kelley, who in 1988 listed some qualities of good followers, including dedication to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” But as you read on, you see that what he describes is not so much “followership” as “a life of integrity outside of leadership.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the key to being an effective follower is the ability to think for oneself—to exercise control and independence and to work without close supervision.” (It’s paradoxical because “follower” is the wrong word and concept. He’s really talking about people who, in the workplace, occupy positions other than those at the top–but who contribute thoughtfully, independently, and honorably to the larger endeavor.)

Many commenters on Cain’s article brought up problems with the leader-follower dichotomy. It can be limiting and patronizing; it casts even solo thinkers as “followers” (just because they aren’t “leaders” on paper), and it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. I would add that it’s geared toward a kind of workplace (often but not always corporate) that practices social engineering. Many firms try to engineer success by combining personalities effectively: by identifying employees as “types” (leaders, followers, introverts, extraverts, and whatever it might be) and then adjusting the staff proportions. This trend is neither necessary nor universal. There are other ways to work and lead one’s life.

Are professional orchestra musicians “followers”? Not quite. True, they follow the directions of the conductor. But for music to occur, each musician must have excellence, soul, and a musical life. It isn’t just a matter of coming to rehearsal and doing what the conductor says and shows. Each member of the orchestra is dedicated to music; this includes hours of solo practice, chamber music, teaching, and much more. All of this contributes to the orchestra’s work and performance. Without each member’s independent musicianship, the orchestra would turn mediocre.

Is a professor (other than department chair) a “follower”? No–even those who teach the standard courses bring their own thoughts, research, and questions into the classroom. On their own, they conduct research in areas of interest. As they advance, they may teach more courses of their choosing or branch into new areas. Many professors I know perceive “leadership” positions as an encumbrance; they would not want to be department chairs, even less administrators. There is plenty of leadership in what they do.

Even in corporate settings, the “leader/follower”opposition fails to characterize the situation at hand. Many outspoken editors, software engineers, and others help shape the company’s work and direction, even though they are not formally “leaders.” Sometimes it is those in lower positions who exercise the intellectual leadership of a company.

Most of us, in our everyday lives and work, combine leading, following, participation, and independent action. We may tend toward one or the other; different projects may bring different qualities out of us. As Helen Vendler notes in a memorable essay (which Cain cites but misinterprets), a young poet or artist may have less-than-stellar grades; her talent and excellence may show not through all-around achievement, but through a special brilliance and intensity. So instead of crudely categorizing ourselves and others, we can instead look at what we do, say, choose, think, and desire, and how this changes over time.

Back to college admissions: I doubt that many admissions officers swoon over hollow tokens of leadership. Still, there are ways to strengthen and dignify the application process. Typecasting is not one.

Image credit: I took this photo in Gill, Massachusetts.

Note: I made a few changes to the sixth and ninth paragraphs after posting this piece.

Are 96 Percent of Managers and Executives Extraverted?

sidebarIn various places I have seen the startling assertion that 96 percent of managers and executives self-identify as extraverts (in other words, that self-identified extraverts almost fully dominate management positions). I do not believe it. I have worked in education, publishing, computer programming, and counseling; most of my bosses, from managers to executives, tended toward introversion, at least in my perception. So I wondered whether this figure accounted for all fields–and where it came from in the first place. I decided to find out. I reached the conclusion that the 96% figure needs major qualification.

I found the explicit claim–along with a cited source–in a Harvard Business Review article by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann. A sidebar in the article states: “Whereas just 50% of the general population is extroverted, 96% of managers and executives display extroverted personalities.” The source: Deniz S. Ones and Stephan Dilchert, “How Special Are Executives?” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2009. This paper examines determinants of executive success by analyzing the scores of a sample of 4,150 managers and executives on a personality test and a test of mental ability.

I was able to access this paper through the Columbia library database. Unfortunately it doesn’t give any information about the sample; instead, it directs the reader to an earlier paper: “see Dilchert & Ones, 2008, for sample description.”

I tracked down the second paper (Dilchert and Ones, “Personality and extrinsic career success: Predicting managerial salary at different organizational levels,” Zeitschrift für Personalpsychologie, vol. 7 [2008], 1–23.). I had to pay a fee for it, but I wasn’t going to stop now. Here’s what I found (on p. 6):

Participants were 4,150 individuals who completed a personality inventory as part of an assessment center. Of the total sample, 1,819 individuals were applicants to a managerial position and 151 individuals were considered for a promotion, and thus completed the personality inventory under selection conditions. In addition, there were 2,180 managerial job incumbents who completed the inventory for developmental purposes. All participants also completed a demographic form and provided information on their current employment status and employment history.

Wait–so the participants were taking the assessment for a job-related purpose: for employment, promotion, or development. The results were then used as data. The stakes were high, in other words (especially for those applying for employment and promotion), and their responses were initially not anonymous. This could well have influenced the responses.

Moreover, they all took it at a particular assessment center. This suggests to me that certain professions were not included: professors, academic administrators, principals, artistic directors, librarians, computer programmers (who manage their own teams), self-starting entrepreneurs, head physicians, and others.

In addition, the personality test was the Global Personality Inventory, which is geared specifically toward the workplace. Scores on this test may or may not correspond with scores on a Big Five inventory. The 2008 paper states:

The GPI is a thoroughly developed inventory backed by empirical evidence that supports its reliability and criterion-related validity for use in managerial assessment (see Schmit, Kihm, & Robie, 2000). Reliabilities for the Big Five facet scales typically have been reported to range between .65 to .88 (Schmit et al., 2000) and .58 to .88 (ePredix, 2001) in managerial samples (mean reliability across scales .73 and .75, respectively).

In neither of the papers do I see the figure of 96 percent; perhaps Grant, Gino, and Hofmann extrapolated it from the normative data and data on variability. Let us assume, though, that the figure accurately reflects the test results. It does not reflect the managerial and executive population as a whole, for three reasons:

  1. The test seems to have carried relatively high stakes (in comparison to a test administered purely for a study);
  2. The test was administered at an assessment center that may not be used by all professions and fields–thus the sample may be skewed;
  3. The instrument itself is designed specifically for the workplace; the extraversion score may not match scores on other personality tests. In particular, the questions may involve more context-specific details.

So, instead of saying that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraversion, I recommend saying, “On a Global Personality Inventory administered, at an assessment center, for employment, promotion, and professional development purposes, 96 percent of managers and executives gave responses suggestive of extraversion.”

One implication: The extent of the tilt toward extraversion in management may depend strongly on the field.

Another implication: It is important to look into claims of this sort.

Image credit: Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann, The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses,” Harvard Business Review, December 2010.

Update:  People continue to cite this misleading figure.

A Sense of Tuning and Timing

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato explains how the beautiful city, the kallipolis, succumbs to decay as anything else does. First, the leaders start having children at the wrong times; then the children, who are not raised properly, mature without a sense of poetry and music. Lacking this sense, they also lack a sense of proper governance.

Why might this be so? I asked my students. Why would good leaders need education in music and poetry?

The answers they offered said a lot about our times. “Music allows you to be creative,” said one.

“It’s self-expression,” said another.

“This is true, but is there more? What does it mean for Plato?” I asked.  They were momentarily stumped.

I directed them to a passage in Book III:

Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of the kinship with himself.

Now they understood that Plato saw music education as a conduit to good taste and judgment—because, having learned to discern good craft in one sphere, one can recognize it elsewhere as well.

One can dispute this, of course. There are plenty of examples of people with musical prowess who show poor judgment in other areas of life. Nonetheless, there’s something to this idea of timing and tuning. When you learn to play or sing in tune and in rhythm, you do become more alert to form and detail. You come to sense the relationships between different parts of a work, whether it’s a sonnet, an opinion piece, or even a sentence. You may even notice when your mood is out of tune or out of step.

None of this transfer of sensibility is guaranteed. It’s possible to perform a sonata splendidly and then get into a needless argument. It’s possible to sense a flaw in a sestina but not in a policy proposal. Nonetheless, music and poetry can make a person more alert to tunings overall.

But of course music isn’t only tuning and timing. There’s tension between control and release, between discipline and abandon, between form and departure from form. You need both, but in what proportion? There’s no final formula. That’s where keen sense comes in.

Young people do not lack that sense. It’s just that many of them haven’t thought of music in that way. Why not? Much of it has to do with a popular belief in self-expression. It needs a counterbalance, and a strong one. Self-expression of a kind is important, but it’s the shaping that makes it interesting. It’s the shaping that allows works to speak to each other and to seep into the memory. It’s the shaping that allows us to carry a sensibility from one sphere into another.

This shaping, of course, requires knowledge; you must listen to many sonatas to understand what a sonata can be, or to depart from a sonata. Beethoven’s Opus 111 arises from the earlier sonatas; it could not have been composed in a void.

A good curriculum would include many works that help students understand form and shape. It would involve a great deal of listening to poetry, music, and speeches. It would not preclude self-expression, but it would lift that expression, enriching it with literature, history, mathematics, languages, and more.

Update: For more on self-expression and its pitfalls in the classroom, see Robert Pondiscio’s piece in the Atlantic.