Good followership fosters good leadership
Maybe the first game we ever played as kids was “Follow the Leader”—and we’ve been doing it ever since. But what we overlook is that without followers, who do leaders lead? Indeed, if you flip the coin of leadership, what you’ll find on the other side is followership. One does not exist without the other. A great leader has great followers. A lousy leader goes it alone.
With the thousands of books, presentations, and articles on leadership, maybe it’s time to take a good look at followership, and how employees who understand it can have huge impact on management and the companies they lead.
Let’s start with Rachel. She was a long-time IT expert for the company, got mission, wrote stellar code, created beautiful algorithms that harmonized company systems. Management recognized it, too, and rewarded her with a new title, the opportunity to lead an entire tech group, and—it all went to hell from there. A year later, Rachel walked into her review,
confidence broken, no idea how to help her team do better work, ready to bag it. The first question from management: What happened?
What happened was that Rachel’s natural skill set of data, code, and system dynamics had almost no connection whatsoever to the system dynamics of a roomful of human beings. So, Rachel found out the hard way that maybe she’s not cut out to be a leader. And, c’mon, who doesn’t want to be a leader? Actually, a lot of people.
If you think of the word “follower” and the image you get is sheep led to slaughter, you might want to rethink. What’s begun to bloom and grow in the American workplace is a symbiotic relationship between C-Suite and Cubicle. For future-thinking companies, the growing trend for management is to understand their employees on a more personal level and create work environments that help them be the best version of themselves.
To that end, companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on culture, workspace, and employee wellness programs, including training in emotional intelligence. (A recent Career Builder study showed that more than two-thirds of employers value EQ over IQ.)
Companies are also being more transparent about how their high-level planning is carried out, leading to greater trust and better understanding between management and employee. This industry sea-change is in service of helping workers feel better about their work, and the byproduct for companies is almost always efficiency, effectiveness, and happier employees not looking around for greener pastures.
So if leadership is doing its part, providing thoughtful vision and organic work environments for their teams, it might be a good time for the followers among us to take a good look at the kind of contributions that we can make. To that end, here are a few integral pieces to being a great follower that—if used safely and effectively—not only elevate your game at work, but can be an inspiration to the leaders you follow. First and foremost . . .
You’ve gotta care.
Fundamental. Being your better self in the place you spend (at least) 8 hours a day is key. Caring about your job makes getting in early and staying late less soul-crushing. Commutes are more bearable. You build deeper relationships with colleagues—and btw, if you’re not having a beer with workmates from time to time, you might want to check yourself. Caring helps you want to create better ways to work—there’s your efficiency—and produces involved, creative employees who see potential to do well in the company. And leaders who see that emotional investment are more likely to emotionally invest themselves, creating a path to openness, mutual respect, and much better . . .
If you care, you necessarily have an opinion, and good followers are adept at knowing when to express it (or not), and in the most appropriate way. Which is to say, if you’re going to speak truth to power you might want to have a pretty good idea what the truth is. Good followers make sure they understand the guardrails between which most corporate decisions are made, and have investigated where a particular issue originated. They get the context and have the EQ to offer up an opinion in a timely and constructive way.
As such, solid communication does as much as anything to help good followers define themselves and their value within the company. A leader who’s great at communicating ideas that align with company vision will automatically get more efficient work from his or her employees. Followers who get the goal as directed but foresee a better way to achieve it, find the right way to message the idea, help make change, find a better path. And while good followership certainly doesn’t mean lockstep agreement, it does carry the hope that in your disagreement the search for the solution outpaces the complaint.
Being in good communion with colleagues can build natural workflow, dissipate disagreements, and (thankfully) shorten meetings. Even better, it can lead to a certain kind of magic known as . . .
Employees who give a damn and are great communicators tend to be good at sharing ideas with colleagues—and when colleagues share back, they engage in a natural human instinct, which is to create. That’s where the magic comes from, the interchange between people as they build on each other’s enthusiasm and ideas and move a project forward to completion.
The grind of a tough assignment with late nights gives way to an earned satisfaction that what you’re doing is not only good for the company, but good for the team, and (bonus) good for yourself.
Another benefit for collaborative followers is that the single voice becomes amplified at the roundtable, the group thinking infinitely more powerful and imaginative than going it alone. And there’s power in it. Not necessarily in the anarchistic sense, but rather in helping management come to understand a “user” POV, the experienced hands-on voices welling up from the realm of the cubicle that change minds, broaden creativity, and create workflow that actually flows.
When management sees the company becoming more profitable because of it, their hearing tends to improve. When employees feel listened to, their collaborative efforts get validated and foster methods and means that if allowed to take root become a part of company culture. This, in turn, deepens their good effect and brings the C-Suite/Cubicle dynamic into a harmony that most companies would kill for. At that point, it may even begin to resemble . . .
Which, by the way, hardly ever happens in a silo. In fact, the not-so rosy side of innovative collaboration—the ideas that don’t fly, that require endless tweaking or killing off altogether—those ideas define what innovation actually is: iterative failing-upward to success. Every failure provides insight. Every insight increases the likelihood that the next version will be the solve. Or the next. Or the next. Honest innovation asks that collaborators be resilient, have agile minds to attack problems from counterintuitive, asymmetric angles and, above all, to never stop asking what if? Of course, the nuts-and-bolts side of innovation is that leadership, while giving absolutely believable lip service to it, often doesn’t have time to fool with it. They want to be innovators (or maybe want more to be known as innovators) but the corporate infrastructure to make it happen is far too complex for their daily bandwidth. Conscientious followers, who again may understand the inner workings of a company better than their higher-ups, can often fill this gap, find the innovative idea at their level and bring it to management. These are the ideas that must be communicated carefully to have upper-level caution give way to unexpected surprise, one hopes, eventual implementation. Most forward-thinking companies also have innovation boards or committees where serious followers are encouraged and welcome. And if you find yourself in one of those groups, it may become apparent to you, after all that…
Good followership leads to good leadership.
Imagine if Rachel, instead of saying yes to company leadership and the disaster that followed, had instead parked herself at a roundtable working group of innovative collaborators who understood followership. Perhaps awkward at first, she would have become a contributor, and grown more comfortable working ideas back and forth with her colleagues. With her knowledge and experience, it’s natural that her ideas would have risen on the tide of other’s contributions, and Rachel, without realizing it, would have become recognized by her colleagues as one of the leaders of that group.
And Rachel’s idea of herself as leadership would’ve built from there. Or it may never have built at all, which is OK—and kind of the point of followership. But when you think about yourself with respect to leadership, recognize the difference between confidence and competence. Don’t question your confidence and charisma, focus instead on your competence, humility, and integrity. One of the recognized leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela, equated a great leader with being a shepherd: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
So, if one of the great leaders of all time chose to lead from behind, why not choose to follow from the front?
Everyone Reports to Someone
Good followers’ traits seen in leaders, too
Rachel’s story in the adjacent article is not unique. In fact, it’s all too common.
Rachel’s company asked her to take on more responsibility and move into a managerial position, but clearly gave her very little help once she agreed. The move from “individual performer” to “manager” is arguably the biggest career jump many leaders make over the course of their career. It requires a different set of skills that many companies, frankly, don’t train or mentor well on. The fact that Rachel didn’t succeed initially as a manager doesn’t mean she’s not cut out to be a leader.
Every single person in the organization needs to focus on “followership,” as everyone reports to someone. We probably don’t focus enough on what it takes to be a good follower. There has been a lot of good research done recently though on how followers can and do influence those directly above them in the organization (both positively and negatively). Having a good relationship with your leader, trusting your leader, and being willing to voice issues when they arise are all ways that followers influence not only their direct leader, but others in the organization as well.
The article suggests that what followers need in order to be successful are caring about where they work, good communication skills, the ability to work as part of a team, and a focus on innovation. When followers exhibit all of these qualities, you know what they likely are? Leaders. They just may not have a dotted line on an organizational chart to prove it.
The organizations of the future that will be the most successful are those that expect leadership out of every employee.
Dr. Michael Wesson
Professor and Chair, Department of Management
Harbert College of Business