In Executive Coaching and Advising, Leadership, Organizational Culture, Thought Leadership by Terina AllenLeave a Comment


We talk so much about leadership that we make it sound like the holy grail of personal, professional and career success, and this encourages everyone, including me, to aspire to become one. The unintended consequence of this effort is that we likely devalue followership by limiting our conversation and training to helping people become great leaders.  How silly that even sounds to me as I write this now — become one — as if we’d wake up one day and be proclaimed a “leader.” As if there is any title, position, office, budget size, number of employees or college degree that somehow makes us a leader. Just in case you aren’t already clued in — there isn’t.
We spend so much time defining leadership, outlining core leadership competencies, subscribing to leadership styles, reading and learning from renowned leadership theorists and applying, espousing and debating different leadership philosophies that I am starting to think we may be missing the most important point — followership — and how it is a huge value component of leadership.
Surely, there are leadership principles we need to apply as we move our teams and organizations to greater levels of success. There are also followership principles that we need to apply as we seek to develop future leaders and demonstrate leadership at the deepest levels.

Three Principles of Followership and the Connection to Leadership

A critical factor in predicting and sustaining leadership success is being astute enough to appreciate and know when and how to follow. Here are three followership principles to help make the connection to leadership effectiveness.

1. The best leaders are the best followers.

Leaders are not above their followers, and they are not superior to their followers. Leaders don’t have some astounding information or knowledge that their followers don’t have access to. They don’t live in an alternate universe and come back from time to time to bestow upon followers the privilege of their presence — their sheer existence.
The real impact, the real power is in followership, yet if I offered a workshop on “followership” the enrollment numbers would likely be very poor. Why? Because…

There is no leader without a willing follower. There is no celebrated leader bee (the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfreys, Warren Buffetts, Martin Luther Kings, Michael Jordans, Ronald Reagans and Barack Obamas of the world) without having committed and dedicated worker bees. There are no best-selling authors without having dedicated readers. There are no hall-of-fame coaches without first having gifted and talented athletes. There are no award-winning educators and faculty without first having exceptional students.
There are no well-run and remarkably effective households, organizations or companies without hiring or retaining committed and dedicated high-performers (the followers). And there are no great leaders who don’t simultaneously know how and when to follow.

2. Leadership and followership run hand in hand.

This is to say that neither is above or beneath the other, and the efforts of leaders and followers are synchronized with a focus on the larger goals. John S. McCallum (2013) with Ivey Business Journal, states that “The flip side of leadership is followership …but curiously, followership gets only a small fraction of the airtime that leadership does.” But as more and more great followers become leaders, this will change.
“When I think about those who devalue followership and fail to make its connection to leadership, I get visions of their impending flawed leadership running through my head and the unnecessary suffering and agony of those who will be tasked with trying to follow them.”
Organizational and project success are dependent on willing and committed followers. Brian Rook makes this point well in his article in the Association for Talent Development. Rook (2016) informs that “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.”

3. The best followers make the best leaders.

When you are looking for whom to follow, look for the individual who has been a great follower. Don’t look to follow someone who you know is not a good follower. These people won’t care one dime about your needs and will neglect to even ask for your input. People who don’t appreciate and value followership will see you as beneath them (as someone there just to serve and elevate them). 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 and to benefit from their leadership.
On the other hand, those who value followership become the best leaders. Why? Because these leaders care about their followers and are able to demonstrate it. They understand and appreciate the limits of their leadership and how their followers really will make or break them. They understand that no matter how many followers they have, they are still only human and share all the same vulnerabilities, shortcomings and struggles as other humans.
The best followers make the best leaders because they view those who follow them as:
  • equals who have their own minds with their own thoughts, ideas and talents.
  • major contributors to the end goal and not as replaceable parts to achieving the leader’s vision.
  • professionals who add meaningful expertise to the conversation and offer topics worthy of dialogue, debate and discussion.
  • intelligent and thoughtful members of the team and able to make their own choices.
  • thinkers who have a right to question, to seek understanding and to hold them accountable.
  • worthy of having a relationship and partnership with and so will take time to address and resolve conflict as necessary.
  • leaders in their own right; these leaders understand that there can and should be other leaders in the room (and even their followers can be other great leaders); they realize and appreciate that they don’t have a monopoly on leadership.
Sick and Tired of Leadership that Doesn’t Value Followership
How many of us intend to voluntarily follow a “leader” who does not consider himself or herself a follower as well and who does not subscribe to followership principles? Are you a leader who makes the connection to followership?
1. Do you raise your hand as a follower?
2. Do you raise your hand to listen to and learn from other great thinkers?
3. Do you raise your hand to sometimes support a cause that you don’t necessarily lead?
4. Do you raise your hand to sometimes advance the vision and goals of those you follow?
5. Do you raise your hand to continue to learn, unlearn, ask questions and learn some more?
If you raise your hand to be a best-in-class follower, surely you raise your hand to be a best-in-class leader.

Terina Allen
CEO, ARVis Institute
International Speaker | Strategist | Management Consultant | Educator | Author


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