Yes, there is an art and practice to following; at least if you care about achieving a worthy objective. We all can’t lead at the same time and our capacities to allow others to lead and be a good supportive follower are just as important to successful results.
One reason no one talks about followership (that is indeed a word) is that being a follower connotes low intellect, passivity and a dim future. As a result most of us undervalue followership and overvalue leadership roles. If we wish to create better and more productive workplaces, it’s important that we put followership in a healthier perspective. Consider the following:
Following is not what it used to be: Regardless of what we think it’s like in the military or in the good old days, following today is not about passively accepting whatever the boss says. The days of command and control leadership are (or soon will be) over because the world has become so complex and nuanced that leaders need their followers to be thinking and providing feedback.
Just as there are good and bad leaders, there are good and bad followers and being a good follower in today’s world of work requires brain power, emotional intelligence, and a willingness to serve—the same stuff that makes a good leader.
Good followers are as important as good leaders: A good follower speaks up, contributes, and disagrees, but when committed can be counted on to support the leader and execute her decisions.
Indeed effective leaders pay extraordinary attention to the selection of the people they lead. Who fits the culture, who shares the vision, who is capable of helping and who has the courage to disagree? These are the people who make the cut. The rest are troublemakers, cowards and incompetents. Nothing personal, just an assessment of weak followers, those who will cause the team to under-perform or fail.
Following and leading are two sides of the same coin: They operate as a sort of yin-yang in the workplace, political arena or the dance floor. Leading is no more superior to following than female is inferior to male. They can’t exist without the other.
Glorifying leadership at the expense of followership is at the root of much team dysfunction as it contributes to team members competing for leadership at the expense of the leader and team performance.
We all must learn how and when to step into and out of leading and following roles the way a senior manager steps into a leadership role when communicating his team’s priorities, but steps into a follower role when participating in a cross-functional company project.
Leadership and followership roles are not permanent.
The world is increasingly moving towards a world of dynamic leadership and therefore dynamic followership. People, even those with formal leadership titles, must learn how to switch between leader and follower roles and move seamlessly between the two.
In the old days these roles were static. The boss was the boss all of the time and that was that. To get that leadership position you had to wait for your boss to be promoted, fired or retired.
Today with knowledge growing exponentially, any one person can only have niche expertise. Together with increasingly competitive and rapidly changing markets, teams can only perform effectively when team members step into and out of leader and follower roles depending on who has the needed experience, knowledge or intuition required for a particular situation. The best performing teams are not necessarily the ones with the brightest people, but rather the teams whose members are able to switch from leader to follower role seamlessly and rapidly, as the situation requires.
The world needs good leaders and followers. To solve the gigantic problems we face today we need to step back and assess our old habitual ways of thinking about leaders and followers.
Followership in particular should be sexied up to our young people as the necessary complement and ally to leadership. Followership is not submissive, passive or weak but rather their opposites.
Leaders can no longer solely direct the way forward, they now need strong followers to participate in leadership decisions for the best outcome. Titles don’t mean anything. It’s about adopting the required leader or follower role for the situation the way we shift from mother to friend, brother to coach, or boss to mentor as the situation arises. Followership is also great schooling for leadership.
To achieve your ambitions, fulfill business missions and to make this world a better place remember this: following well is as important as leading well.
Peter Anthony Gales is a
speaker, consultant and trainer who helps businesses realize human potential in the workplace.