The relationship between leaders and followers seems pretty straightforward: Leaders lead. Followers follow.
But Barbara Kellerman, a leadership lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government author of Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, says that significant shifts in technology and culture have changed that dynamic, giving followers more power. And there’s a lot you can learn about being a good leader by learning to be a good follower.
“[Good followers] support and aid the leader when he or she is doing the right thing, and stand up to the leader–having the courage to let the leader know when he or she is doing something wrong or headed in the wrong direction,” says Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., associate dean of the faculty at the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
Being a good follower doesn’t make you a “sheep,” Kellerman says. The truth is that most of us are in followership roles regularly, perhaps in our families, social circles, religions, or other settings. Here are five skills you learn as a good follower that make you a better leader.
Today, leaders need to be aware of various audiences including colleagues, coworkers, customers, board members, and the public at large. As a leader, you need to be aware of what it takes to “bring them along.”
Being a follower teaches you how to be aware of the needs of other people as well as their potential to “make my life hell from one second to the next,” she says. Good followers learn to read people and understand what upsets and motivates them.
When good followers encounter a co-worker with rabid political beliefs or a disagreeable manager, they’re probably not going to fight every battle, Kellerman says. Playing the part of the follower is easier, simpler, and often less risky.
Good followers learn how to get along with those who have differences while not ignoring those differences. That’s an important leadership trait, too, because a leader or manager can’t afford to be oblivious to the attitudes of those around him or her, Kellerman says.
Being a good follower means having the courage to dissent if you think your leader, manager, or superior, is doing something wrong-headed, Kellerman says. That’s not always easy, but it requires the guts and strength of conviction that are essential to good leadership, Kellerman says.
“Being a good follower is complicated in ways that are rather similar to being a good leader. It means being engaged. It means paying attention. It means having the courage to speak up when something’s wrong and it means having the energy and activism to support a leader or manager who’s doing things wisely and well,” she says.
In many ways, followers can “make or break” the leader influencing if and how goals are accomplished, Riggio says. In many business sectors, followers are the ones who are doing much of the creative work, although the leader may get most of the credit. Leaders who have been good followers understand how to work with people to bring out the best in them.
“Did Steve Jobs really create the iPod and iPhone, or was it the creative collective of team members at Apple? Today, leaders may be evaluated not only by how much is produced or achieved, but by the quality of the team or organization and its members,” he says.
In order to be a good follower, you need to be able to think for yourself. Riggio says the best followers support and aid the leader when he or she is doing the right thing, and stand up to the leader when he or she is headed in the wrong direction.
“Many of the same qualities that we admire in leaders–competence, motivation, intelligence–are the same qualities that we want in the very best followers. Moreover, leaders, regardless of their level, also need to follow,” he says.
Guest Post by Dave Clemens
Who values leadership qualities more when they interview potential recruits, HR or the line managers who’ll be directing the newbies once they join up?
You might assume the former, if you think about the contrasting interests of the two parties: HR wants to find somebody who can not only fill a specific position, but also — ideally — grow into greater responsibilities with the organization, meaning someone who can lead. The manager is primarily concerned with getting somebody who can do the job that needs to be done at the moment, which probably entails more following than leading.
Indeed, there’s a school of thought that sets up a dichotomy between leadership and followership qualities. That idea is eloquently expressed by blogger Geoffrey James, writing for Inc.com. He says that, unlike leader types:
“Good followers can put their own egos aside and do what you want done, whether or not they think it’s the right thing to do. Good followers put their creativity to work, not in setting grand visions, but instead by finding better and faster ways to do what you want done. Good followers can be smarter than you and possess skills you lack… but they still trust that you know how they can best apply their brains and talents for the greater good.”
A Dicey Dichotomy: Leadership and Followership
That’s a persuasive argument on its face. But what if the leader vs. follower dichotomy were more apparent than real? Then, HR or hiring managers who are thinking this way, would need to think again.
Here’s the thing: If you look carefully at the qualities that make a great leader, you can see that many of the very same things make a great follower, too. So when HR and/or managers meet candidates who display these qualities, they don’t need to weigh the ability to follow against the ability to lead. In other words, it’s a “both” proposition rather than an “either/or.”
If your next applicant possesses these magical qualities, he or she will likely do a fine job of filling a subordinate position, AND make a great candidate for eventual promotion to a leadership role.
Here’s a list of seven of the traits/abilities we’re talking about:
1 – Commitment. Leaders want followers who don’t sag or, worse, quit when the going gets tough. And that goes double for what followers want in leaders. The guy or gal at the head of the team has to believe in the goal(s) so much that adversity doesn’t dent his/her performance or attitude, which everyone else is watching.
2 –Communication ability. Every member of a team or department needs to be able to explain to every other member what he or she is doing and why. This ability becomes even more important in a leader, whose job is to explain to everyone where the group is going and how to get there.
3 –Critical thinking. Leaders can’t assume that just because someone tells them something, it’s correct. There’s a high price to pay for leading a team down a rathole that someone claimed was a door to success. But followers who make such assumptions can also cost the team dearly by wasting time and resources.
4 –Empathy. Team members shouldn’t make excuses for each other, but they should try to understand when problems — personal or business — arise in others’ lives. And leaders definitely need to be able to feel the pain of those they lead.
5 –Respect. Sometimes brilliant employees treat co-workers with contempt for being less intelligent or capable than themselves. If such a person is promoted into leadership, that lack of respect will cause resentment and even rebellion.
6 –Sense of humor. Sure, what you’re doing is important, sometimes very important, but it’s not usually a matter of life and death. Whether follower or leader, the ability to step back and have a chuckle at yourself takes the pressure off and relaxes the kind of tension that can get in the way of results.
7 –Vision. The most effective followers are those who know how to keep their nose to the grindstone, but also know how to lift it occasionally and try to figure out where they’re going long-term. Needless to say, the latter ability is absolutely essential in leaders.
Of course, there are other leadership qualities that followers may not be called upon to display, like high-level decision-making ability or an understanding of when and how to delegate.
But often, people who possess the seven traits mentioned above can learn to make informed decisions and delegate where necessary. Some aspects of leadership can be taught.
So next time you’re interviewing a job candidate, whether you’re in HR or line management, don’t think, “Is this person a better leader or follower?” Instead, ask yourself, “What qualities does this person have that will make them a strong follower and, eventually, a strong leader?”
Dave Clemens is a senior writer for Rapid Learning Institute and writes The HR Café Blog. His work has appeared in The Associated Press, World Press Review, and in several human resources, employment law, and business newsletters. You can connect with Dave via Twitter @TheHRCafe.