13 Steps To Breaking Down Barriers Between Leaders And Followers

This article was recently published on Adriaan Groenewald’s Linkedin with a good response from interested readers. Hence our decision to republish this article on this interface for our users interest and benefit.

Read through the article and then as a leadership barrier exercise, rate yourself objectively on a scale of 1 to 10 on the 13 points below (1 = useless; 10 = perfect). Those that score high, continue implementing these. Those that score low, strive to improve these.

We recently discussed the universal law of resistance: “All movement in life is accompanied by resistance”. Common language we use to identify the presence of this law are: challenges, problems, obstacles, constraints, issues, etc. We walk into the leaders office and say – “we have a problem, challenge.”

I shared an experience of when I was a young assistant manager in a large corporate. The MD walked into my office, when I was standing in for the manager. He sat down and chatted, then referred factually to our performance, followed by a question: “What challenges do you have that I can assist you with?” I answered none. The fact that he asked me made me feel good and I was impressed with him. But I still didn’t tell him anything about our challenges.

His instinct as a leader was great. But know this, that people don’t just simply tell the leader about their challenges, for various reasons. As a leader you need to refine your skill to draw out of your people their obstacles, challenges – real or perceived.

So as a leader you can wait for followers to come to you with challenges, problems, or you can proactively go in search of these? Why wait? Is it because you blindly hope there are no problems out there, or that you reason staff should manage their own challenges, or you don’t like confrontation, or you are trying to steer away from any negativity, or???

If you understand that first and foremost your job is about creating successful movement, and that this function is either assisted or hindered by the law of resistance, you will start proactively working on your skills of processing resistance.

In general people are respectful or even wary of title and position. People mostly care what their leader thinks of them, whether it is because he determines their bonus, next promotion, fear him, or that they simply respect him.

So they often fall into the trap of showing and reporting selectively what they believe the leader should know, showcasing their best side in many instances; or they withhold the bad news for different reasons, including a belief that they will sort it out before the leader finds out. This is a natural consequence of a title or position of authority.

Be aware of the limitations that title or position bring, and never underestimate these. Constantly fight this barrier to you being in touch with reality and establish its nature as exactly as possible.

Symbolically such barriers may seem like a high wall between leader and follower, which means the leader cannot ‘see’ or ‘hear’ what is going on in the organisation, on the other side of the proverbial wall.

When followers move over to the leader’s side of the barrier, they behave differently to when they are on the side where the leader can’t ‘see’ or ‘hear’ them.

The barrier may seem like thick glass, in which case the leader can sort of ‘see’ the behaviour on both sides, but not ‘hear’. So, followers can smile while actually uttering negative comments and so fool the leader. Or, the barrier may seem like thin glass, in which case the leader can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ most of what goes on, but not the exact truth.

One of your functions is to try and see any given situation that has been thrust upon you as it really is. Lacking this ability to see the truth means moving in the dark – and no doubt acquiring some unnecessary bruises as you bump into all sorts of obstacles.

It is essential to be aware of this dilemma, which is a need to acquire accurate information on the one hand, while on the other hand the very people that provide the information report selectively, for various reasons.

Your aim must be to continually break down the barrier.

Anything that threatens an authentic open environment helps build the barrier. Anything that enhances an authentic and open environment breaks down the barrier.

There are a number of different strategies to be used:

  1. Give instructions to your reports and not below them, but insist that you will access information at any level. This means you can walk the floor and ask questions of anyone.
  2. Promote absolute openness and insist that reporting must include positives and negatives. Then, don’t only focus on the negatives but recognise the positives as well when someone reports both.
  3. Connect with people, at a deep level. A person who is truly connected to the leader will probably act more consistently – the same on both sides of the barrier.
  4. Ensure your passions – and therefore your intentions – are in place. People respond more honestly to passion and pure intentions.
  5. Ensure an accurate management information system. But make sure this is not your only source of establishing the facts.
  6. Trust your ‘gut’ feel, intuition. When you feel something somewhere is not right, dig deeper, zoom in.
  7. Understand yourself, to the point that you know what weaknesses may prevent you from following through on your ‘gut’ feel. Being liked/popular vs respected.
  8. Share your views on given situations after your direct reports share theirs. Realise that should you share your views first, most will simply agree.
  9. Ask probing questions when you feel that the person reporting to you may be volunteering selective information.
  10. Don’t emphasise title.
  11. Create opportunities to make direct contact rather than depend too much on mediums like phone and email.
  12. Have a clear, simple vision that inspires and unites, with an accurate and simple direction.
  13. Know your industry well, so that you know what to ask.

As a leadership barrier exercise, rate yourself objectively on a scale of 1 to 10 on the 13 points above (1 = useless; 10 = perfect). Those that score high, continue implementing these. Those that score low, strive to improve these.


Contact Adriaan Groenewald for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside you as a leader and your organisation.

Adriaan Groenewald is an Authentic Leadership Activist

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