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The Only Leadership Theory That Matters

There are lots of leadership theories running around.

Servant Leadership, Adaptive Leadership, Great Man Theory… the list goes on and on.

But in the end, only one leadership theory matters: the theory that your team has about you.

My first Leadership Theory

My first job was at Taco Bell, where I held the esteemed title of “Fry Boy.” The job entailed standing over a hot vat of oil, frying the taco shells needed for that day.

My boss, Jamie, didn’t talk to me much. Each morning she placed a list next to the fryer telling me how many shells to fry.

Twice a day she stopped by to inspect my work. Common feedback was: Too chewy. Too dark. Too light. Change oil. Go faster. Be careful.

Twice a month she put a check in my box.

It didn’t take long for me to construct a working theory about leaders. I decided that leaders do three things:

  • Tell you what to do
  • Complain about your work
  • Pay you

This was one of my earliest theories of leadership.

My theory went deeper than just how bosses behave. It included:

  • How they think
  • What they care about

What goes on in their head

  • What motivates them

Not surprisingly, my Taco Bell Leadership Theory wasn’t very flattering toward bosses.

It also convinced me that I never wanted to become a leader.

We are all little scientists

We all build theories to make sense of the world and people around us. From the moment we are born, we act like ‘little scientists’ — forming theories and testing hypothesis.

Today, each person on your team has a working theory about leadership that explains what you do, how you think, what you care about, etc.

This theory was constructed from their experience working for you and every other boss in their past.

Why this matters

If you don’t tell your team why you do things, what you care about, and what motivates you then they have no choice but to fall back on their personal Taco Bell Leadership Theory.

Which, though probably wrong, helps them to make sense of what they see.

Feeling frustrated that they’re jumping to the wrong conclusions, making bad assumptions, or not giving you the benefit of the doubt?

It’s time to share your WHY with your team.

Autoethnographic Research

Recently I asked folks on my mailing list why they follow people.

Most folks approached this by asking themselves, “Why do I follow someone?” This is a wonderful way to begin your exploration of the topic.

(Fun fact - psychologists call this “me-search”, a bit of a pun on “research”. The fancy name for this is “autoethnography”,)

You shared thoughts such as:

  • I follow people that inspire me. They have something I aspire to, or at least would like to aspire. I have a greater respect to these persons than usual and I know for a fact that they are very good at that of which my inspiration derives.
  • I follow much of the philosophy that I saw from my previous tech manager. I knew that he was an extremely good software engineer and in terms of leadership he lead by example and never let someone else took a bullet than him. He protected the team and at the same time empowered us.
  • I trust that my boss has my back.
  • They have their own opinion and are honest with others. I follow when someone makes sense to me, even if that’s not 100% of the time.
  • I need the paycheck, so I must do what they say.

A Theory of Follwership

After doing more reading, thinking, and me-search, I’ve formed a working Theory of Followership. 

My Theory of Follwership postulates that people actively follow based on the following factors. 

  1. Trust/Relationship - They feel a positive relationship toward the leader.
  2. Competence - They feel the leader is competent.
  3. Vision/Purpose - They feel the leader is going in a “good” direction.
  4. Admiration - They feel the leader has positive qualities, which they wish to possess.
  5. Environment - The environment reinforces followership activities.

A Hypothesis to test the theory

First, consider each factor above on a scale from -5 to +5.

Now, let me offer a hypothesis:

To achieve active followership at least 2 factors must score greater than +3, as long as the other factors aren’t below zero.

For example, I’ve had a boss who I enthusiastically followed who scored this way:

  1. Trust/Relationship: +3
  2. Competence: +5
  3. Vision/Purpose: 0
  4. Admiration: +1
  5. Environment: +1

I’ve had another boss who I struggled to follow, because at least one factor was below 0:

  1. Trust/Relationship: +3
  2. Competence: -2
  3. Vision/Purpose: +3
  4. Admiration: -1
  5. Environment: +2

Even though we had a good relationship (+3), a shared purpose (+3), I didn’t feel they were competent (-2) in their current role, and I didn’t really admire them (-1). 

I suspect that no matter how high some factors are, the more factors come in below zero, the less we actively follow.

Finally, I had a boss who I couldn’t stand, but followed anyhow, that scored like this:

  1. Trust/Relationship: -1
  2. Competence: -2
  3. Vision/Purpose: +2
  4. Admiration: 0
  5. Environment: +5

This was a job that I had to have to pay the bills, or my kids would be on the street. I did somewhat believe in the work, but truthfully, I was there for the money. 

I don’t think I really “followed” him, but I did what he told me to so I wouldn’t get fired. Maybe we could call that “passive followership” (or “death march”). <grin>

Notice a pattern?

Each factor is subjective, and we’re scoring from the perspective of the follower, not the leader. 

This means what’s important is not how leaders try to be perceived, but how they are actually perceived by their team.

As Virginia Satir wisely said, “You can’t see your own back, but everyone else can.” 

The only score that matters is the one that followers give you. You’ve got to find a way to get information from them, and then create a feedback loop for improvement.

DO try this at home

Take a step beyond me-search and take a few minutes to rank someone above you on the scale presented above. 

  • What factors do you feel impact you the most?
  • How would you change my Theory of Followership to fit you better?
  • Extra credit for asking someone on your team to rank you on this scale, and then having a discussion about it.

I’d love to hear how this went. Drop me a line at and fill me in. I respond to every email.

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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