I was co-captain of the soccer team and we were flailing. Things weren’t all bad. We had good players—some great—and were doing well in league matches.
But for some reason this season, several players were rebelling against the coach.
Perhaps some of it was resentment about the intense focus on fitness, with brutal sprinting drills and long runs. Many players strongly preferred more skill work and scrimmaging over fitness regimens. Maybe some of it was his aloof style, with formality and distance from the players. Some players thought they were better than the coach at knowing the game, reading the players, and developing set plays and match strategies.
Things were starting to come off the rails.
Then I remembered something my Dad had told me:
There are four types of people in any organization.
The First Type: Leaders
All organizations need leaders. We’ve known that for thousands of years. We may disagree about what good leadership entails, but there’s little doubt that we need leaders—and that great leadership can have a tremendous impact on organizations and teams.
The Second Type: Followers
All organizations also need followers. How effective would leaders be without good followers?
Followers are often neglected in discussions about organizational effectiveness, but that’s a big mistake.
Various leadership scholars have written about different types of followers:
- alienated, passive, conformist, pragmatist, exemplary (Kelley, 1992)
- resource, individualist, implementer, partner (Chaleff, 1995)
- isolate, bystander, participant, activist, diehard (Kellerman, 2008)
These leadership scholars raise important points about whether followers are passive or active, dependent or independent, unsupportive or supportive, disengaged or actively engaged, and more.
Followers make a big difference in many ways: getting the work done, upholding the organization’s values, supporting leaders in times of difficulty, contributing to the culture, and more.
When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.
The Third Type: Objectors
Objectors express disagreement or opposition. They challenge leaders when they go astray. Sometimes it comes in the form of tough questions. Other times in the form of outright objections. Though often overlooked, objectors play a critical role in accountability, culture, ethics, and more.
“No one is more valuable to the organization than the subordinate willing to speak truth to power.” -Warren Bennis, leadership author
Whistleblowers are another example of objectors. They play an important role, often as a voice of one, in reporting ethical breaches. This takes moral courage because many people view whistleblowers as traitors—and sometimes retaliate.
“One of the most valuable things any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.” -Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
The Fourth Type: Mutterers
Mutterers are the ones who sit quietly in the meeting, nodding their heads and going along, and then mutter complaints, insults, and frustrations under their breath after the meeting. They diss leaders behind their back, trash the organization, and take pot shots at their colleagues when they’re not around.
There are many problems with muttering. For example, it:
- focuses all our attention on what’s wrong
- can make us feel better (or morally superior), for a moment at least, even though we haven’t done anything productive or valuable
- makes us passive, replacing action with complaint, outrage, or disdain
- can prevent us from learning new ways to address problems
- only adds to our own stresses (which activates harmful hormones and prevents us from activating our empathy, creativity, and wisdom)
- can make a bad situation worse and generate even more frustration in a downward spiral
- can become both addictive and contagious
The biggest problem with muttering, of course, is that it’s a monumental waste of time and energy—and counterproductive.
If we go down the dark path of perpetual muttering and complaining, we can become the cancer we’re complaining about, the negative influence that seeps into the culture and brings everyone down.
“Why do you complain rather than act?” -Marcus Aurelius, ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher
The other dynamic often missed here is that people want to be around people who take initiative, not complainers. Meanwhile, objectors are exhibiting exemplary leadership behavior through their moral courage. Mutterers are doing the opposite.
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
Which Type Are You Focusing On?
If there are four types of people in any organization—leaders, followers, objectors, and mutterers—we should recall that it’s true not just for businesses and other types of work organizations but also for families, communities, and even countries.
Think about it: how much time do you and those around you spend leading, following, objecting, or muttering? If we gave you a smart device that could measure your time in each activity, what would the results be?
The point isn’t that we can get to zero complaining and muttering in our lives. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. The point is about whether we’re doing them—and tolerating them—way too much.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
The Four Types in Action on the Soccer Field
On that soccer team, I think the revolt resulted in part from a misunderstanding of what leadership is—and from what we most needed from that coach.
No doubt many of the players were right about some of their complaints. But was it the job of the coach to be the best in all areas all the time? Ideally, we’d have a coach who’s brilliant at everything: scouting, recruiting, positioning, practice and drill design, match strategy, mid-game competitive adjustments, halftime chats, post-game reviews, player psychology, group dynamics, goalkeeper training, crisis management, humor, fun, and more. (Even Ted Lasso doesn’t rise to that mantle.)
Alas, in the real world, we had a coach who was great at some things, good at others, and not so good at a few.
The responsibility for everything didn’t fall to the coach. It fell to all of us as a team, but we weren’t prepared to accept it.
The muttering was worse than useless.
We tried to nip it in the bud, but in retrospect we should have done more to draw a firm line between objectors and mutterers (something that required more “steel” leadership)—and stop the muttering in its tracks. Our competition was hard enough without us carrying the weight of all that negativity on our backs and spreading it around to each other, slowing us down in everything we all wanted to achieve.
- How much time do you and those around you spend leading, following, objecting, or muttering?
- Do you have the right proportions?
- And are you doing enough to reduce the muttering to a bare minimum?
“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” -Maya Angelou
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
- “Are You Strong Enough to Be a ‘Voice of One’?”
- “Are You Working for an Unethical Organization?”
- “What to Do If You Work for an Unethical Organization?”
- “What to Do If You Work for a Toxic Boss”
- “The Dangers of Toxic Micro-Cultures”
- “Leading from Below”
Postscript: Quotations on the Perils of Muttering and Complaining
- “Don’t be overheard complaining…. Not even to yourself.” -Marcus Aurelius
- “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.” -Stephen R. Covey
- “Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.” -Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
- “I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” -Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
- “When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
- “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” -Maggie Smith
- “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author with his father, Bob Vanourek, of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!