Why followers follow bad leaders
8 January 2019
Maithripala Sirisena. Mahinda Rajapaksa. Ranil Wickremesinghe. We’ve had different leaders with the same unhappy results for decades. At the core of this country’s political gridlock and dysfunction is a failed leadership culture and not a few men jockeying for power.
Our existing model of representative leadership and behavioural conduct urgently needs fixing, as does fast tracking the empowerment of a new generation of leaders in the UNP. And yet we often forget that leadership is also a two-part equation. Followers have their own identity, just as leaders have theirs. In fact, Michael Maccoby, a leadership expert who has advised, taught, and studied the leaders of companies and governments in 36 countries, says: “Followers are as powerfully driven to follow as leaders are to lead.”
To better understand the strength of the bond between leader and led – or the extent to which followers believe they should follow – Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist at IBM, collected and analysed data from over 88,000 employees in 72 countries to ascertain how national culture influenced people’s behaviours in organisations, institutions, and families, as well as their self-concept.
Hofstede developed the now familiar construct of “power distance”, which he defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations accept and expect [my emphasis] that power is distributed unequally”. In Sri Lanka – which measures 80 on the Hofstede Comparative Power Distance Index and is therefore categorised as a high power distance culture – “people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and that needs no further justification.”
At work, for example, organisations are characterised by tall pyramids with leaders who are directive in style, instructing their followers on what to do and how to do it, as well as implicitly or explicitly discouraging and/or punishing any questioning of their authority.
But followers also avoid making decisions because they expect to be told what to do; they are obedient, deferential and do not freely express their thoughts, opinions, emotions, doubts or disagreements in the presence of superiors/seniors; when they do, they choose to answer vaguely or indirectly rather than reply with a direct “no”.
“Hierarchy is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralisation is popular, and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat,” says Hofstede.
In Sri Lanka, a high Power Distance score of 80 indicates a culture where hierarchy reflects inherent inequalities, centralisation is popular, and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat. A low score of 35 for Individualism implies a strong collectivist stance that emphasises the “we” and “our” over the “I” and “my”; the culture values followers who fit in and conform by camouflaging their true intentions and deemphasising the self. A low score of 10 for Masculinity signals a lack of assertiveness; status is preserved through social relationships and by avoiding shame and loss of face, rather than material success and individual achievements. The traits best represent mainstream Sinhalese employees and voters.
Research by Meina Liu, a professor of communications at Georgetown University, also helps to explain indirect communication styles in high power distance cultures: she describes, for example, how leaders/superiors/seniors take precedence in seating, eating, walking and speaking, while their followers wait and proceed after them.
Sri Lankan historian Dr/ Michael Roberts has also explored the role of language in reinforcing this leader-follower/superior-subordinate relationship: followers/common people “go” (yanava) whereas leaders (in his example, kings and monks) “proceed” (vadinava), followers/common people “eat” (kanava) while their leaders “dine” (valandadanava).
Of course, examples of top-down leadership exist in every country, but what makes power distance especially relevant to hierarchical cultures like Sri Lanka (as well as Malaysia (100), the Philippines (94), China and Bangladesh (80), Indonesia (78), India (77) and Singapore (74) is the extent to which it is culturally reinforced at all levels of society. (Incidentally, lower power distance cultures – such as the United States (40), United Kingdom and Germany (both 35), Norway and Sweden (both 31), Denmark (18), and Australia (36) and New Zealand (22) – distribute power through decentralised organisations where followers habitually question authority and reject authoritarian leaders).