Friday, August 07, 2009

Notes on Lead/Follow Models

All this "mass un-following" on Twitter recently got me thinking once again about the concept of following (and its antonym, leading), which I have been pondering over for some time now. But before I jump into the main subject of this post, let me complete my train of thought around Twitter's methodology to make social connections. Twitter's use of 'following' is a misnomer -- all it signifies, really, is an asymmetric connection where the unidirectional vector of 'interest to connect' may point either from someone to you, or, to someone from you. However, some people take 'following' in Twitter quite literally and tend to imagine that they could have a large band of 'followers', like the fan following of a celebrity, if they did things right. Earlier in the hype cycle of Twitter, users evolved a de-facto social protocol of following those who followed them -- a polite gesture to maintain the symmetry of the connection, based on normal social etiquette. Then came the 'auto-follow' tools like Twollow that did this automatically for you. As Twitter's popularity grew, and grew explosively, this has led to a culture of gathering followers arbitrarily, just so one may boast of a large following. Several services in the Twitter ecosystem promise tweeters a quick way of getting hundreds of followers, while tools like Twitalyzer measure one's 'success' as a tweeter using parameters like influence, clout, etc., which are a function of how many followers one has, among other things. Be that as it may, on to my main point in this post.

It seems to me, to my simple and lay mind (which hasn't been trained in social anthropology or whatever category this falls under in the taxonomy of things), that there are 4 types of what I'm calling the 'Lead/Follow' model -- four ways, broadly speaking, in which the idea of leadership and following could find a workable implementation in a society or a group of people. I am outlining them here, in the order of 'least evolved' to 'most evolved'. Please note that this is not about right and wrong, or about good and bad -- I use the word 'evolved' in contrast to the word 'primitive'. Humans are more evolved than aardvarks, who in turn are more evolved than cicadas, but that doesn't make us better or more morally righteous or give us more rights (though, sadly, some people seem to think so).

The most basic of all Lead/Follow models is based on fear. You find this in a command and control hierarchy: leaders assume positions of authority, seize power and command their followers and control their behaviour. The idiom here deals with 'orders' and 'obedience'. The leader makes sure that followers remain afraid so that his/her orders and directives are obeyed. Followers do not have a right to think independently or develop their own opinions, much less voice them. If they do, they will be summarily excommunicated from the regime (or worse: executed). This is a sustainable model when followers also expect to be ordered and led in this manner and consider this to be the natural way of life. Examples: fascists like Hitler and Stalin, marauders like Genghis Khan, and corporate bullies like Microsoft and others of their ilk.

Then there is the model based on respect. People follow a leader because they respect the individual, and the leader makes sure that he/she earns the respect of followers so that rules and regulations promulgated by the leader are adhered to. Leaders are appointed to positions of authority and persuade their followers to accept their proposals and expect their compliance. Followers have a right to develop independent opinions, and are expected to voice them without fear. However, the final decision remains with the leader, and after followers have had their say, decisions are made (which generally take important opinions into account) which are binding, even on those who do not agree. Followers who do not conform are frowned upon and invite the scorn of others. This is sustainable for followers who consider this to be a fair and reasonable way of organizing their society. Examples: democratic leaders like Barack Obama, religious leaders like the Pope, and companies like Google.

Beyond respect, there is inspiration. People are not required (much less compelled) to follow such a leader, but the leader inspires them through discourse, with the power of their ideas, insights, vision etc., and their unique and original thinking. Leaders usually do not officially hold positions of authority, but mobilize their followers to move towards a certain goal, and followers voluntarily embrace the goals and ideologies of their leader. Where they disagree, they question and argue with their leader. The leader in turn welcomes questioning and argument, and in some cases may even use discourses in which there is intense debate, as tools to refine their own thought process. When people simply cannot agree, they agree to disagree without being disagreeable. Followers remain free to disengage at any time, if they are not comfortable with the norms (quite often implicit) that govern their system. This is sustainable for followers who zealously guard their right to independent thought, but are motivated and moved by their leader. Examples: visionaries like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and innovative companies like Apple.

And lastly, there is the model based on sharing. This is not really a Lead/Follow model (or alternatively, one may call it a sublimated Lead/Follow model), since everybody's a leader and everybody's a follower, in different spaces and/or at different times, but all together and all at once. Here one imagines society as a loose network of peers, where members share ideas, thoughts and opinions with one another as equals. There are no fixed positions of overall authority, though some may hold authoritative positions on subjects of their expertise. People do not consciously aim to influence other people -- they just share their ideas and thoughts as they collaborate with others in a spirit of partnership. In turn, other people may be influenced by those ideas and may draw on them to further improvise on the theme or to develop related ideas of their own. Platonic dialogue resolves contradictions or disagreements around an idea, and is seen as a way of enriching and evolving ideas, as different from establishing one as prevalent over the other. Conflicting interests are resolved through negotiation towards a positive-sum (i.e., non-zero-sum) outcome. There may be some who seem to (statistically) influence others more often, but such individuals desist from taking on 'leadership' of the group in the conventional sense, and in fact eschew the idea of others 'following' him/her. This is only sustainable in a society of people who have transcended the need to find a leader to follow, and who believe in self-regulation towards the common good. Examples: 'non'-leaders like J Krishnamurti and Lao-Tzu and the open-source movement.

The amazing thing is that all 4 models co-exist in the world as we know it today, though not necessarily in harmony. While an average person probably represents some mix of these four models, there seems to be one model which is their 'home', where they are most comfortable (could also be in the overlapping area between models a step away from each other). Then there are the outliers, who represent an extreme implementation of one model, with very little or no overlap with neighbouring models. The trouble starts when people whose memetic DNA (the metaphorical 'grain of wood' of their home model culture) of one type mingle with those whose memetic DNA is essentially different. Value systems vary significantly across these 4 types, as is perhaps obvious, and people who come from one home model would find it difficult to succeed in another. A typical follower from a fear-based model would be quite lost in a sharing model, since it would be impossible to find a leader who evokes fear and is always in command. Under such circumstances, smart folks try to adapt and fake it while they can, but in the long run, it is evident as to who they really are because it shows.

You know who you are. I do.

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