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.