Followership: A Sneaky Form of Leadership

Followership is the ability to walk alongside of or behind a leader and is considered to an essential role for people to be able to undertake. There are many important skills involved in being a good follower, many of which were honed during games of “Follow the Leader” or “Simon Says” we played as kids. Some of the most important skills to followership include

  1. Being a good listener.
  2. Being able to focus on what is really important.
  3. Seeing the relevance of what is going on as it relates to your work or family.
  4. Giving your ego a rest. Being a good follower means that you know how to be up front and you are okay with being in the background too. Its called diversification.
  5. Commitment to the team. Believing that what is best for the organization means that you are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of followership to me is how it is actually an unassuming form of leadership, particularly if you act in the early stages. Here’s how it works.  One of the hallmark qualities of a leader is that he or she innovates. They come up with a new idea that enhances what it is we are doing or incrementally improves a process to make it more efficient or profitable. But unless someone signs up to agree that the leader’s idea is a good one, it will probably crash and burn. It is actually the role of the first follower to validate that the idea of the leader actually has merit and can improve the condition of the people and organization. When the first follower states their agreement, then that frees up others to put their toes into the water and allows the idea to grow.  When more people sign up (often times based on the idea of the first follower) then the idea can reach a critical mass and a tipping point can be achieved.  If you were an early follower (or early adopter) then you manifested one of the most important qualities of leadership—courage to act.

Being a great follower requires several key skills to master. Try these out in a safe place (like at your kid’s soccer or baseball game) if you are not sure you have the talent to be a good follower

  1. Be observant: Notice how people follow well and how people follow badly. The parent at the soccer game who is screaming at the coach is a bad follower while the gal at the office who asks questions that push the presenter to be clearer about their message is a good follower.
  2. Test different perspectives: Give consideration to multiple points of view. Do that old debate exercise of taking and defending a position that you do not believe in and consider how you could make that option successful around a workplace task.
  3. Talk to your colleagues and leaders about how they arrive at decisions and what do they do when confronted with a difficult decision. Learning about how other make decisions and how they think those through will be of critical importance to you as you learn to support others.
  4. Be an activist. I remember sitting in a Board Room with a group of very senior leaders when a fairly new staff member responsible for a certain area of production began raising some concerns about the “production mentality” within this company. Everyone appeared to be aghast and he even commented “ I know I’m pushing around some sacred cows, but I just have to say it like I see it”. There was silence for about 30 seconds until another person stated that she was concerned about similar issues in her work area. Soon, most of the team members agreed that there were key issues that had to be addressed and they established a work plan to identify and modify the concerns. At the end of the meeting, the “fairly new staff member” went over to his first follower and thanked her for her support. She in turn, thanked him for his courage in bringing up the issue in the first place.

We are all leaders and we are all followers. Finding and honing your skills in followership is critical to your success as a leader at work, home and in your community. As you pay attention to good followers, notice what they do well and just follow their lead.