The Challenge of a Simple Question
When’s the last time you thought about whether you’re a good follower? That question may pose a significant challenge to many of us. We may struggle to identify the last time (or any time) that we considered our role as followers in our homes, our organizations, or our communities. Upon reflection, we may find that we spend significantly more time focused on our role as leaders. But what if we suggested that being a good follower is part of your leadership—that leadership is followership? That’s heady stuff for a Monday morning email, so grab your caffeine of choice and let’s dive into the idea.
Leadership as Followership
Very few authors tackle the idea of followership—those who do often start with a clear distinction between leaders and followers. They point to the apparent differences in organizational roles and hierarchy and invite individuals to adeptly play their unique roles. We love the point those authors make because it emphasizes the value of being a good follower. Where we would take a slightly different approach is in the idea that leader and follower roles are static and defined by position. Rather, as Allen Hamlin has suggested, we believe that “we can hold follower and leader roles at the same time in some of the very same contexts.”
Maybe an example will help. In Ethos, we have three partners: James, Becky, and David. We all have the word “Chief” in our titles. We make “big picture” decisions together, bringing our unique understanding of vision, operations, and strategy to the discussion. Yet, we have clearly defined roles and decision-making authority in other areas. For instance, we always assign a “client lead” to our projects. That partner serves as the primary liaison to the client, determines the best approach to the work and assigns tasks to the other partners. Sound familiar? If your team is like most, the simple answer is “yes,” which means we are both leaders and followers at the same time.
Core Behaviors of a Good Follower
As leaders, we know how important it is to have good followers, so how do we commit to being a good follower in our context? While there are many behaviors we could focus on, we believe there are three critical behaviors that good followers exhibit: participating, speaking in support of leaders, and taking decisions.
- Good followers participate. They look for opportunities to contribute their knowledge, skills, and abilities to discussions and projects regardless of whether those items directly relate to their departments. We recently witnessed a C-suite member play their role as a follower to perfection when the C-suite team discussed how to help a particular employee group understand their contribution to the organization’s mission. While those employees were not part of this individual’s department, they said, “How can I help?” After reflecting on it a few days, this leader-follower shared their unique perspective in a meeting with the employee group and decided to launch a new element to the organization’s onboarding process that would emphasize mission-role connections to all employees. By seeking to participate, this leader-follower helped to address the immediate situation and launched a program that will have a lasting positive impact.
- Good followers speak in support of leaders. Becky often says, “leadership is not for wimps,” and that’s borne out in the criticism that leaders often face in their organizations. Sometimes that criticism is founded on unfair assumptions about facts and motives. When followers gently challenge those assumptions and assume leaders’ positive intent, it’s a difference-maker in the organization. A mid-level manager recently demonstrated this principle by speaking up and offering a different perspective of the situation when a group of employees was openly questioning the motive of a C-suite member. By speaking up, this leader-follower clarified the immediate issue and built up the credibility of that officer.
- Good followers take decisions. We have undoubtedly encountered situations in which a decision is made, and we say to ourselves, “that’s not what I would have done” or “that’s not the way I would have handled it.” When faced with those moments, good followers distinguish between a decision that comes from a different approach versus one that is wrong. Once they determine their concern is one of approach or style, they still support and execute the decision. At Ethos, we often encounter this situation when in our client lead roles. While we share a mission, vision, and cultural DNA, we have different personalities and thinking patterns that lead us to different conclusions about approaching a situation. When that happens, we embrace our roles as leaders-followers and honor the responsibility of our client lead. By taking decisions, we show respect for each other and our processes.
From Reflection to Action: Consider upcoming opportunities you may have to be a good follower. Will you participate, speak in support of other leaders, and/or take decisions? What will that look like for you?