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An Excellent Follower

I have been in leadership for 35 plus years. I have led leaders who were asked to lead others. In that process I have heard a phrase repeatedly: “I wasn’t really led well.” Now that could be true. But I find it interesting that I’ve never heard anyone say, “I wasn’t really a very good follower.”Five key skills that come up again and again in the many articles written about followership are motivation, courage, service, dedication, and a strong work ethic. These are the same qualities we want and find in the best leaders. Did you know that you can lead by great followership? Being a good follower doesn't mean always taking the back seat. Good followers can become good leaders, and it doesn't always take a promotion to do it. Without the so-called followers, even the best plan by the brightest leaders would never be executed.Followership matters a lot in an organization. Good followers not only get things done, but they also support the company. They not only make the goals and visions of their supervisors a reality, but they add their creative input to improving them. Good followers also have the backbone to shape their managers into better leadersThere is a rather confusing dilemma in leadership: Many, perhaps even most, of the people who naturally gravitate toward leadership roles don’t have the humility or character we want in a leader. Many of the ones we might want to see in leadership roles quickly feel chewed up by tensions and the thanklessness of the job. They soon become passive or quit and status quo continues. If we hope to change this, we have to do a better job of finding and building the people who aren’t necessarily “natural leaders” but are great followers and have the character and ethics that can lead and serve well.

Every current leader can contribute by nurturing great followers in your organization:Start being a producer. See yourself as a scout, producer, and nurturer of talent that others might overlook. Give some confidence to the quality talent that lacks that natural confidence.

Listen and affirm. Stop and listen attentively to those normally quiet staff members when they venture a comment. Affirm them for speaking up, and give their opinion serious consideration.

Listen and learn from everyone. It’s disheartening to be at an event or conference and see “leaders” who see themselves as significant leave to go get coffee or hang out in the lobby when someone they don’t value as highly as the main speakers are on the platform. You communicate volumes about your opinion of yourself and upcoming talent when you do that. Your presence, attention, and affirmation with help the new presenter grow and will give hope to the ones who are also listening and hoping for a bright future.

Give generous and honest feedback. When a novice takes on a new job, applaud everything you can. Don’t be stingy with praise where it is honest, but also share in a kind and helpful way any input that will help their future.

See leadership as a dance. In dancing, one person leads, and one follows. But it’s an interplay. They trade back and forth. It’s not about submission and domination. Good dancers help each other shine. So do good leaders and followers.Followership really matters. Where followership is a failure, not much gets done or what does get done is not what was supposed to get done. Good followers have several qualities in common:

  • Listening. Good listening may be the primary characteristic of good followers. Many people say, "I hear you," but did they really listen? Listen in order to understand, not to answer.

  • Judgement. We all know leaders must have good judgment, but it’s just as important to a follower. Followers must have judgment to know the difference between a directive that your leader gives that you simply do not agree with and a directive that is truly wrong.

  • Focus. Good followers tend to be highly focused on results. They set aside any personal agendas that could disrupt that concentration.

  • Work ethic. Good followers are good workers. They are diligent, motivated, committed, pay attention to detail and make the effort. There is no such thing as a bad worker who is a good follower.

  • Competence. The follower cannot follow properly without being competent at the task that is directed by the leader. Sometimes things go wrong because the follower is not competent at the task at hand. When it does, leaders should take responsibility. Don’t blame followers for not having skills.

  • Honesty and Courage. Respect and politeness are important, but followers can’t sit on their hands while an inept leader runs the company off the road. Good leaders are grateful for constructive feedback from their team. Bad leaders do not welcome feedback and followers must be wise. Followers need the courage to be honest. From time to time, it takes real courage to be a good follower and say the truth kindly but straight.

  • Discretion. Followers owe their companies and leaders discretion. Talking about work matters inappropriately is unhelpful and often harmful. Bluntly, you cannot be a good follower and be shooting off verbally. Everybody who works at a company has a duty to be careful and appropriate

  • Loyalty. Followers who lack loyalty are inevitably a source of difficulty. They create problems between team members; they compromise the achievement of goals; they waste everybody’s time; they are destructive. Loyalty is not a synonym for a yes-man. It is a strong commitment to what the organization is trying to do.

  • Ego management. Good followers have their egos under control. They are team players with good interpersonal skills. They are not about self-promotion and recognition but about the team.Some people shine only when they are in the starring role. But good followers are comfortable playing a supporting role. They do what will make the team succeed, sometimes at great personal risk. For them, there is no individual success if the team fails.

Followership will always be in the shadow of leadership. But there are no leaders without followers. It is true that an organization is only as good as its leaders. But it is also only as good as its followers.How would your current situation change if you became a better follower?

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