The professional world epitomizes leadership. No matter what industry you’re in, being a leader is the holy grail of personal, professional, and career success. As a result, most people want to become one–and we glorify the journey of those who do “make it” to the top. As for their “followers”? We barely give them another thought.
This is a big problem. For starters, you don’t just wake up one day and become a leader. Having “manager,” “director,” or “vice president” in your title doesn’t make you one. Becoming a leader tends to involve a long and ongoing process, and that starts with being a good follower.
Yes, you heard that right. We spend so much time thinking about how to be a good leader, we fail to value (and reward) one of the key skills we need to hone to get there. If we want better leaders, we have to change the conversation and stop our preoccupation with “leadership.” In short, we have to give more praise to followers.
1. Followership is a key component to leadership
Followers are not inferior to their leaders, and leaders are not superior to their followers. Leaders don’t always have extra information or knowledge that their followers don’t have access to. They don’t live in an alternate universe. They’re flawed human beings, just like their followers.
There’s real value in followership. Yet, if I offered a workshop on “followership” the response would likely be very poor. Why? Because we don’t put a lot of worth on that skill, and we don’t give a lot of respect to people who excel at “following.” We don’t appreciate its unbreakable connection to leadership, even though the best leaders are the way they are because they have great followers.
Think about it. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Martin Luther King didn’t become household names through their own efforts alone–they had committed and dedicated worker bees who helped them rise to the occasion. Similarly, you can’t have best-selling authors without lots of voracious readers. You can’t be a great coach without hard-working (and talented) athletes. You can’t be an award-winning educator and faculty without having steadfast or exceptional students.
There are no well-run organizations or companies without first hiring and retaining committed and dedicated high performers (the followers). And there are no great leaders who don’t simultaneously know how and when to follow. Followership is necessary and important for anything worthwhile to happen.
2. You can’t succeed with leadership skills alone
If you want to create a high-performing organization, stop demonizing followers.
Brian Rook, an organizational development specialist, wrote the following in a 2016 post for the Association for Talent Development, “Just as we have effective and ineffective approaches to leadership, we have effective and ineffective approaches to followership. And just that concept alone indicates that followership is not reactive or simply assigned, rather it is a position selected by those individuals who pledge their followership through a project, job role, group goal, or other shared desire for an outcome.”
This interdependence matters. Neither the follower nor the leader gets an automatic placeholder that designates one as being better in cognitive, social, or emotional intelligence skills. Neither brings any special powers to deliver on organizational goals without coordinating with the other. For it to work, you need both parties working together synchronously.
3. The best followers make the best leaders
When you are assessing others for effective leadership, look for the individual who has been a great follower. Being a good follower teaches one how to value someone else’s opinion, consider the inputs of others, and develop emotional intelligence. Someone who isn’t an effective follower probably won’t care about the needs of others or even ask for their thoughts. They’re more likely to see their employees as beneath them, as someone there just to serve and elevate their needs.
People who fail to value followership will never value you because they will decide they have “become” a leader and that you should just be thankful to be able to work for them. Those who value followership become the best leaders because these leaders care about their followers and will demonstrate it. They understand and appreciate the limits of their leadership and how their followers really do make or break them. They understand that no matter how many subordinates they have, they are still human and share all the same vulnerabilities, shortcomings, and struggles as other humans.
The best followers make the best leaders because they view the people they lead as their equals–people with their own minds thoughts, ideas, and talents. They value the contributions of each individual employee and their importance to achieving the end goals. They don’t punish employees who question and challenge them–because they know that having people who hold them accountable is an important part of becoming a better leader.
Being a good follower helps you see others as leaders in their own right, which is exactly what you need to do when you’re in charge of a team. Leadership isn’t about expecting those around you to cater to your every need. It’s about identifying your team’s potential, and maximizing them as you work toward a shared goal together.