Followership and Leadership: Do they always match?

It can be interesting to observe a group in the absence of their leader for some period of time.  It may be that a certain member steps up as a stand-in leader, or that every follower works extra hard to compensate for the absence of the leader.  Either way, observations about a certain group a followers in the absence of a leader will almost always lead to an assumption about the leader of the group.

The bulk of the 10-week internship program at AlphaSights consists of working on the desk.  After a week-long training “AlphaCamp” at the start of the internship, 6 weeks on an assigned segment with a trainer and a manager follow.  After six weeks with a “home team,” each intern has an opportunity to switch to an “away team” on a different segment for the last two weeks of working on the desk.  The final week consists of interns working on research projects to present to the company at the end of the summer.

As I switched teams into a new segment at AlphaSights, I looked forward to being exposed to new and different team dynamic.  When I went to switch segments, I noticed almost immediately that the team was very busy.  It was late on a Friday afternoon, and the team (including interns who were all rotating at this point) was still very much occupied with work.  I had heard certain things about how this team was particularly busy and often didn’t have time for much else.  I also learned that the manager of this team was on vacation the past week, and would still be for the next week–my first week with my “away” team.

As I began working on this new team, I began to notice differences in how the team operated.  I noted that the team had over three times the amount of open projects than my last team, whom I had already considered extremely busy. A member of the team is living in Ecuador, and they would skype him in to our daily morning meetings in order for us to communicate about projects and priorities.  The organization and systems were also slightly different.  Myself and another intern were trained by one associate, who frankly had so much on her plate that she didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to train two people.

Working on this team for a full week without the manager present, I made certain observations about the group dynamic and culture that in turn led me to certain assumptions about the manager of this group.  It was interesting to notice how these automatic assumptions about a leader were formed so easily in my head sheerly because I thought I had the “follower dynamic” figured out.

When I finally met the manager at the end of my first week, I was surprised.  I started to question the source of my surprise, and realized that I had assumed, given the sheer amount of work and team dynamic I had observed, that she would’ve been very brisk and no-nonsense.  However, when I finally met her, she was in high spirits and quite energetic–and her mood mostly continued this way through the next week.  She organized a team lunch, taking us all out to a restaurant in the middle of the day for an hour and a half despite the significant workload we were all facing, and later bought us all donuts as a celebration of our last day on the desk.  Of course, she was extremely efficient and organized, and did not hesitate to give critical feedback, but she also added an element of fun to the team that I had not expected.

It may be tempting to assume that the followers of a group mirror the dynamic that a leader sets.  However, it may take a leader to change and even disrupt a team dynamic, especially a charismatic one.