Strong Leaders Create Weak Followers

Strong leaders create weak followers

The new team forms

On the Low Ropes course you are part of a small group of 5-8 people who have to resolve a number of non-strenuous team challenges and problem-solving activities and, ideally, become a team in the process.

You don't know one another - you've met for the first time about 3 1/2

hours ago. You don't know what's in store - only that there will be some outdoor activities or 'challenges' to be solved by pulling together.

You do know that you need to pull together as a team since the activities are designed so that one person cannot do them alone.

Let's give it a go...

Now, most people are happy to give it a go and have fun working together - solving the challenges is ideal but not critical.  But this approach does frustrate some people - the ones who are used to playing the Strong Leader role in their lives and who believe leadership is about

  • 'kicking ass'
  • 'knocking heads together' or
  • 'whipping people into shape'.

The Strong Leader types have a know-it-all approach - winning and being successful is everything. 'Having a go' is not an option - the team must get it right and succeed at the task - even at the cost of relationships within the team.

Now, to discourage this tendency, we subtly highlight, earlier in the day, the 'strong leader' phenomenon - and we, slightly less subtly, hint at the value of pulling together for the Low Ropes session to work effectively.

But some people don't do subtlety.

Or don't hear what they don't want to hear.

Or simply haven't got the patience for the team to discover things for themselves and 'as a team'.

"Strong leaders create weak followers"

I came up with this phrase back in the 90s, when, as a management trainer, I saw this phenomenon in action in workplace teams again and again.  And I observed what happened when a Strong Leader type would take over the team... or try to.

In the early, forming, stage of the team development the Strong Leader style results in:

  1. Acceptance: The rest of the team accept her/him. They now become 'Weak Followers' and do what they are told, with minimal engagement - they emotionally opt out of the team. After all, why bother - Strong Leader doesn't approve of questions or challenges so it's easier to do what you're told and shut up - it makes for a quiet life.
  2. Civil war: The team splinters.  The Weak Followers are happy to go along with things.  But others object and want to be involved as a team. This is resisted by Strong Leader - so they become the Guerilla Group which challenges, resists, and sabotages the Strong Leader. The team is in a state of civil war.
  3. Disintegration: Over time, and as they realise Strong Leader isn't budging, members of the Guerilla Group leave for jobs where their skill and experience will be valued and rewarded. Gradually the team becomes one of Weak Followers who are less skilled, have less belief in themselves and are prepared to say in the organisation because they cannot find a better job elsewhere.

On our NLP Core Skills course we often explore and highlight this phenomenon during the Low Ropes team challenge session - because it demonstrates in a few minutes what happens in the workplace over months. And and because it demonstrates Tuckman's Team Development Stages of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

None of us is as smart as all of us

Before we do the Low Ropes Challenge the group explores the team-working concept that none of us is as smart as all of us.  And the empowering Challenge by Choice principle - in which people are encouraged to make their own choices, choices are respected by everyone else on the course.

Because of this, and to begin with, most teams are well-intentioned and determined to pull together. And this sometimes lasts all the way through the session.


Occasionally the good intentions get forgotten by some. The unfamiliar challenges, the time pressure to complete them, the different communication styles of the team members, plus individual personality traits can result in the would-be team disintegrating into Strong Leader(s) and passive followers... Though only for a while - because, once we observe this in action for a while, we inhibit the Strong Leader Phenomenon by changing the activity 'rules'.

Incidentally, a learning point that often evolves in the after-session review is how this phenomenon mirrors what often happens in the workplace. Teams form and bond and have great intentions – and then disintegrate once the pressure to deliver builds up.

On the Low Ropes course the Strong Leader phenomenon has a number of features:

(1) Okay, just leave this to me!

On the Low Ropes the Strong Leader tends

  • To have previous experience in the activity
  • To have a  strong, through not usually well-founded, belief that they know best
  • To be highly task-focussed – getting the job done well is more important than having good working relationships which engage everyone
  • To need to be Top Dog - all the time
  • To get impatient with people who don't think the way they do
  • Simply want to speed things up.

(2) Okay, let's get things moving along

So, to move things along, the Strong Leader begins

  • organising people
  • raising their voice
  • talking over others
  • 'volunteering’ them for roles
  • and telling others what they’d like to do 'you'd like to do this, wouldn't you!'

Now, since the group is new and people have only arrived at the course a few hours previously, most will typically go along with things.

At first, that is.

But their body language indicates a lack of enthusiasm, ownership and engagement. They have become (temporarily) the weak followers.

The team has moved from Tuckman's Forming stage to the Storming stage.

(3) Let’s take a moment

On the Low Ropes one or two of the disenfranchised people will usually suggest a reappraisal of the team’s strategy. (And, if team members don't do this, the facilitators will suggest it.)

So a discussion is held about what needs to change. This usually includes the need for people to listen to one another and to consider all ideas being offered.

This is invariably welcomed by all - curiously enough, even by the Strong Leader - and they begin once again, only this time communicating with one another, listening to ideas, and pulling together.

(The team has moved to Tuckman's Norming stage.)

(4) The self-directing team is 'Performing'

Now, in theory, a self-directing team should quickly descend into chaos, with everyone having different ideas, vying with one another, endlessly discussing instead of acting...

Yet, what actually happens is precisely the opposite.

The team usually moves into a quite different and very effective phase of functioning - the Performing stage. Now everyone is heard, valued and respected by one another, and all ideas are considered. And if something isn’t working? They quickly switch strategies and experiment with another way.

All without a Strong Leader - or Weak Followers.

The leadership role now moves around the team depending on who is best suited to it at any stage in their progress.

A blueprint

About 2,500 years ago a Chinese sage called Lao Tzo (sometimes called Laozi) wrote a little book of wisdom called the Tao Te Ching which succinctly defined good leadership:

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him …  when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves'.

Team dynamics in action

We began using outdoor activities in our NLP courses back in 1999 because of how these sessions added so much depth to the learning experience.

Some activity sessions such as the High Ropes course emphasise and focus on individual performance. Others such as the Low Ropes Challenge course, explore what it is like to pull together as a team.

We didn't have this on my Core Skills?

If you've been on our NLP Core Skills you could be thinking 'I don't remember this on my course....?'

Well, occasionally the teams on the Low Ropes don't to go though this Storming stage (the course which ended yesterday 23 July 2017 being just one example).

They either bypass the Storming stage or this stage is so low-key and subtle that the issue is quickly managed within the team.


(Note: a version of this article was published here in 2011. It has now been updated and re-written - July 2017.)

Links to more articles on teams and teamwork

Teams, the Spider's Web challenge and learn-by-doing

NLP in Managing & Leading

Comfort, Stretch, Panic (1)

Challenge by Choice

Small learning teams on courses

NLP and the High Ropes

NLP and the Low Ropes

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  1. Liz on 12th September 2011 at 9:55 PM

    Interesting…and very true. This is prevalent (sp?) in my work place but I think in reverse?? A new boss came in last year & the ‘old timers’ make life difficult for her by not listening, deliberately being awkward over hours etc…
    Perhaps I should book them all in for a low ropes session… 🙂


  2. Reg on 12th September 2011 at 10:13 PM

    Interesting slant on the theme, Liz. And you’re right, of course, it can work in reverse where the reforming manager can be sabotaged by the ruling clique on the ground floor.

    I’ve actually been in this position, myself, in the past. Subtle game ensues whereby the new manager/leader has to pulse check what is happening, and to/by whom, before begining the reform process.

    This is where the leadership skills and attitude are truly tested.

  3. Margaret Johnson on 13th September 2011 at 10:08 AM

    The sad parts of bad management are the losses.
    Loss of improvements through taking on board the ideas brought forward by team members and developing them in ways that suit specific situations. Loss of good staff that will find better opportunities elsewhere. Ultimately the result could be collapse, either of a family, a team, business, or government.

    I would say that new managers (Leaders) coming in to an established team need to be particularly skilled at listening, in order to make it possible for them to be listened to and to be able to motivate team members.