Even Leaders Have to Follow Sometimes
We spend a great deal of time talking about what it takes to lead. Perhaps we should devote a bit more time to what it means to follow.
- There are no great leaders without effective followers.
- There are no successful transformations without effective followers.
- There are no successful innovations without effective followers.
- There are no successful organizations without effective followers.
Followership is underrepresented in our professional development curricula. It is certainly underrepresented in our coverage of leadership. When is the last time you took a course or attended a seminar on what it means to be an effective follower?
I’ve been exposed to exactly zero courses or programs offering guidance on developing as an effective follower. It’s no wonder I’ve struggled with following during much of my career. Sure, I was taught from an early age to “Be a leader, never a follower.” Talk about a built-in cultural bias practically from the cradle. The intent was positive, but it missed the reality that we all have to follow. Even our leaders spend much of their time as followers.
Instead of fighting the label and role, it’s better to define and embrace it on terms we can accept. And then become great at it.
Followership Doesn’t Mean Blind Loyalty
Followership should never mean blind loyalty to those in leadership roles. (What can possibly go wrong with blind loyalty to organizational leaders?)
We regularly see evidence of the fallout from blind followership in the form of massive ethical transgressions and widespread organizational failure.
You get a vote on whether to follow or not, whether a leader is worthy of your followership. Here’s the acid test:
- Is she competent?
- Is she transparent in her motives?
- Is she open to the opinions of others?
- Does she have your back?
- Do you trust her?
- Do her values mesh with yours?
- Does her vision inspire you?
- Is she a developer of emerging leaders?
(See how this conversation always shifts to the leader!)
I’ve worked for leaders who passed this test and those who failed it. For those who failed it, I was merciless in my drive to displace or replace them.
For those who passed the test, I’m not sure I ever earned Follower of the Year. I could have done better. Experience and hindsight are powerful teachers.
In your case, let’s assume, the leader passes the stress test. The next moves are yours. Here are some ideas to support your performance as an effective follower.
At Least 8 Behaviors of Effective Followers
1. Once you decide to follow a leader go all in. Ambivalent followers don’t save or transform organizations, pull off moonshot projects, or change the world. It takes heart and mind commitment to follow effectively.
2. Don’t suspend critical thinking. No one should be asking you to suspend your critical thinking and ability to dissent. Effective leaders crave alternative viewpoints and constructive disagreement. If they suppress these behaviors, you’ve made a poor choice of a leader to follow.
3. If you have a different view, disagree vehemently up until a decision is made. After you’ve made your case, it is your obligation to support the decision regardless of whether it went your way or not. Organizations are filled with passive-aggressive types who missed this memo. No one benefits from their behaviors.
4. Be patient with dissenters: teach, don’t preach. Preaching won’t convert those opposed to the vision or the leader. Attempt to understand their interests and then their position. Use this insight to strive to engage and persuade. Teach them the acid-test questions above and ask them to answer those questions based on their observations of the leader in action.
5. Hold yourself accountable to your results. Personal accountability is a great practice in any setting. Modeling accountability for your efforts and outcomes is the single best way of encouraging the development of a group culture based on personal accountability. Your leader needs this culture to emerge to succeed.
6. Lead as a follower. Yes, we constantly shift from one role to the other. See a problem, fix a problem. Don’t wait. Have an idea that will help the group move further faster? Share it. See an emerging risk? Get the group out ahead of it. Effective followership means stepping up and serving as a micro-leader often.
7. Help the cause by engaging across the organization. Recognize and engage in the broader political environment. Serve as an advocate for the leader and vision across the organization. Effective followership means serving as a defender for the leader’s vision in all settings. Again, teach, don’t preach. Connect the vision and initiative to solving meaningful problems. Help others strive to see the same picture.
8. Never be a fair weather follower. Resist the temptation to jump ship when the going gets tough or out of political expediency. If your leader violates the acid test questions, after calling him or her out on it, you reserve the right to exit. In almost all circumstances, your exit ramp leading to your next adventure is when the mission has ended successfully.
Blind loyalty is neither an attribute of an effective follower nor a condition of an effective leader. Mutual trust is the foundation of every effective leader-follower relationship. If you trust the leader, go all-in with your support of the leader and vision. There are no partial commitments when it comes to true followership. Great leaders require great followers. Together you can change your world for the better.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.