What is leadership? Is it to start something completely new? Spearhead something that no one has done and doing it in a completely new way? Is it “to boldly go where no man has gone before?”
In 2010, I facilitated two plenary sessions at a family business conference where founders and successors shared their experiences across two generations of leadership [link]. First, the founders spoke, then the successors responded. Leader, then follower. Pretty straight forward, right? Not quite.
At the dinner, a successor to one of the founders said privately to me, “I am not sure that it would be accurate to say that my father is the founder of our business. You can say that I am the founder of this business because I took it over from him and grew it to the successful enterprise it is today. Or in another way, you could say that my grandfather was the founder as there were many tangible and intangible assets that my father received from him. Then, you also have to think about my great-grandfather’s influence on my grandfather. So, who exactly is the founder?”
Good question! One that applies equally to the notion of leadership and followership.
As I see it, every leader was once a follower, and in many ways, continues to follow even when he or she has become recognized as a leader. Leadership and followership are both important aspects of the act of spearheading an idea, a movement, or an organization.
My father knew this well. At the height of his leadership in the 1990s, his business conglomerate had over 16,000 employees spread across 16 different countries. And yet, he was always scouting for someone or something that would inspire or motivate him. He instilled in me the idea that we are not isolated individuals going boldly where no man has gone before. He taught me that in order to lead, you also need to understand how to follow well.
How does one follow well?
Robert Kelley plotted followership along two dimensions: critical thinking and participation [link]. Assuming that a follower engages with a high level of participation, then critical thinking becomes the factor that differentiates someone who will follow-to-lead and someone who merely follows. The one who follows-to-lead employs independent, critical thinking to fit the ideas, strategies, and instructions of the leader in more effective and appropriate ways to his/her own context. Following blindly is not the kind of following that will result in leading, because leading is very much about following well.
September 2nd 2013 marks the beginning of a new not-for-profit initiative by Rekindle International Marriage & Family Therapy Center: Rekindle Community. So far, there is nothing like it in Malaysia that I know of — a center providing high quality family therapy internship and a research platform, combined with the offering of low-cost family therapy services for families who cannot afford to pay professional fees.
Since I have been told that I am the first in the country to spearhead such an endeavor, I suppose it would not be wrong to say that I am leading the effort. I certainly do struggle with that “lonely at the top” feeling because I am constantly scratching my head to figure out if what I am doing makes sense or is going to work at all. But it would be wrong of me to say that I am leading this effort without having followed and continuing to follow others. I am definitely leading this initiative as a follower.
I have learned from and been inspired by mentors such as Patrick Repp and Dan Lambrides at Minnesota Renewal Center, a not-for-profit organization, on how to start-up and keep-going a mental health center premised upon doing pro-bono work through funding from for-profit mental health work. In a sense, Rekindle Community follows the model I saw at work in Minnesota Renewal Center.
I learn from my family members, especially my brother Dato’ Loy Teik Ngan and his many corporate social responsibility projects, such as the up-coming “build-a-home-in-3-days” endeavor for poorer communities. I follow his implicit ideal that social responsibility needs to arise out of profitability in order to be sustainable. And thus, Rekindle Community, a not-for-profit endeavor, is an initiative of the already successful Rekindle International Marriage & Family Therapy Center.
I have learned from my friend Law Gin Kye whose influential social projects led by humility encourage me to do my small part where I can. I follow his passion and his commitment to help diverse families and communities in Malaysia in creative ways. And thus, Rekindle Community will pull together diverse stakeholders across language, race, religion, and socioeconomic status to work towards its three-fold mandate of providing and enabling quality internship, affordable services, and solid research.
I follow the many “founders” of family therapy around the world [link] who have argued and showed that mental illness is not just an individual phenomenon, but one that arises out of, and can be proliferated and maintained by family systems; founders who have worked relentlessly to discover and refine systemic therapy approaches, both theoretical and empirical, to effectively help individuals and families. Rekindle Community follows this ethos to conduct good research so that we can properly study, develop, and document effective family therapy in the Malaysian context.
I want to continue to learn and to follow — not to follow uncritically, but to follow in such a way that I can lead well. I hope that as I learn to follow well, those who want to participate in the passion to build up family therapy in Malaysia as a highly-skilled and ethical profession will also learn how to follow well with me — because unless we learn how to follow well, we are not likely to learn how to lead well.
In his popular TED Talk, Derek Sivers shows that starting a new movement is not only about a lone nut doing his crazy thing for others to follow, it is very much also about being the one who shows others the benefit of following that lone nut. He puts it this way:
Leadership is over-glorified… As we are told that we should all be leaders, that would be really ineffective. If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow. And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in.
I am very excited about the prospects of growing family therapy as a viable profession here in Malaysia. We are just at the beginning. There is a lot of work to do. If you are inspired by what is happening at Rekindle, drop me a comment or give me a call at the office. Let’s explore possibilities of following-well together!
© Johnben Loy, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Johnben Loy and www.johnbenloy.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.