In the same way that a fresh crisp apple has at its core a number of seeds, so leadership has many seeds at its core. Some are well-known and understood, such as accountability, coaching, business acumen, and an appreciation for the worth of the individual. Others often receive less focus but are no less important or impactful. Followership in leadership is one of these.
My definition of followership in leadership, I see it as the ability to work in concert with a leader, being guided by that leader, but still having the courage of one's convictions to execute the vision of the leader within the framework of personal accountabilities.
Employees who demonstrate strong followership typically foster these 5 qualities.
A High Degree of Self-Worth
Followership can sometimes be confused with “blindly following“, where the behavior demonstrated is a mindless and slavish following of the leader’s directions and example. Nothing could be further from the truth. A great follower is one who brings their own skills and capabilities to the team and has the ability and insight to apply those skills appropriately as they execute the direction provided by the leader in the achievement of the overall objective.
A high degree of self-worth allows an individual to assess clearly what possible options exist for the best solution or approach to achieving an objective. They show the courage to choose a path that is both aligned to that which is expected of them by their leader and also right for the business.
Without self-confidence, and appreciation of self-worth, followers simply wait to be told what to do or follow blindly down a path that may well lead to a poor outcome or even failure. Often the leader is not close enough to the tasks or tactics required at the front lines and is relying on their followers to determine the best approach. A great follower is one who remains objective and has the confidence to pursue the optimal path with clarity, and competence.
The Courage to Speak Truth to Power
None of us are infallible, and very often leaders are faced with difficult decisions and may lack an appreciation of the entire perspective. Unless those that they are leading have the courage to speak up and present a point of view which may be different from the currently accepted one, or different from that which the leader is espousing, then the ability of the leader to deliver the best possible outcome is put at risk.
Speaking truth to power is not easy. It takes a disciplined approach to seek out relevant information and insight on which to form a reasoned and thoughtful opinion. It also takes courage to present that opinion, perhaps in the face of different points of view that appear on the surface to have the support of the leader; and to a leader who may not in fact be in full possession of all the relevant intelligence, but be unaware of that reality.
Many times the leader is rushed, or under considerable pressure, working against a deadline. In those cases, it would appear at first glance that the best possible support would be simply to agree quickly and get on with the task. However, perhaps the leader has not fully understood the foreseen or unforeseen consequences, and so in hindsight will be seen not have to choose the right approach. A great follower may well be able to avert that outcome.
However, in the heat of the moment, and the pressure of the circumstances, there may be little opportunity to speak up and present an alternate opinion; or even create an appreciation on the part of the leader of the need for doing so. Nonetheless, a good follower will make a point of ensuring that before actions are undertaken, no matter how apparently urgent, their perspective will be heard when they feel it is vital to the overall success of the objective at hand.
Personal integrity is reflected in the ability to speak the truth, a track record of consistent adherence to that truth, and the demonstrated commitment to delivering on promised outcomes. Followers who demonstrate these qualities can be trusted implicitly, and as such become extraordinarily valuable to the teams of which they are a part, and to their leaders.
Integrity is a subset of our character. Leaders look for that quality of character on which they can rely, and which will weather the challenges that inevitably occur in the pursuit of challenging and demanding objectives. Followers who are known for their ability to truly respect others, hold others in esteem, and demonstrate ownership of outcomes and accountability for commitments, are those on whom it is easy to rely and who are highly respected by their leaders.
To be a follower without integrity is to be a broken reed on which, if a leader were to lean, would let them down. It could put the shorter-term objectives at risk, and almost certainly ensure the failure of the longer-term objectives. The consistent demonstration of personal integrity requires that followers recognize that they must bring the full weight of their skills and knowledge to their leaders, and be sure that those capabilities are utilized. The alternative is being seen as someone who can execute instructions, but whose actions may be without due thought, or adequate appreciation for consequences.
Competence is a blend of what individuals know, and what they are able to do. Followers who are consistently improving their competence, who are staying alert to emerging trends and resources in the marketplace and then acquiring those for themselves, add greatly to the ability of leaders to execute brilliantly and competitively.
It should be the responsibility of each follower to pay attention to improving their own levels of competency, and not simply be looking to their leader to “make something happen“ in this area. While the leader can clearly provide coaching and necessary resources or support, a great follower is one who undertakes an aggressive and consistent approach to their own personal development and professional growth. By so doing they are demonstrating an increasingly greater level of ability to contribute, and as a result, can accelerate the achievement and results which are being demanded of their leader.
At times it may be unclear either what areas would be beneficial to focus on in the pursuit of greater competence, or how best to go about it. This lack of clarity becomes increasingly more acute as the leader leads their teams into unfamiliar territory, uncertain market conditions, and into a world in which the future is less predictable than it has been in the past. A great follower will recognize this and demonstrate initiative to nonetheless persevere with their own personal growth. Despite the challenging circumstances of the environment, they act so as to bring to their leader those new competencies which are vital for the leader to succeed in uncertain times.
Strong Personal Aspirations
While at first glance this may not appear to be an important quality to see in followers, it is essential. It should show up in the area of an individual’s desire for personal excellence, and achievement of objectives at a level that sets them apart from their peers. When this quality is in evidence it enables the leader to take unanticipated strides forward and creates a significant competitive advantage. Without this aspiration on the part of the followers it falls to the leader to provide all the motivation for individuals and the team to succeed brilliantly; and then to sustain that focus which should come from each member of the team. Each individual needs to bring their own commitment to personal excellence in all aspects of their performance.
Individuals may choose not to aspire to significantly greater responsibility, or to higher levels of accountability within an organization. Their aspirations in terms of career may simply be to remain at the current level. Nonetheless, within the level they have chosen for themselves they must aspire to a degree of world-class performance that sets them apart, and in so doing be supporting their leader to the fullest.
However, there is a second rationale for this being a quality to be sought after in followers.
This applies to those followers who want to grow in their career and either become a leader or, if one already, take on increasingly greater responsibility. In either case, once in a position of leadership, they become increasingly aware of the quality of their own followers. They would be delighted for their followers to demonstrate all the qualities outlined above.
However, the skills of leadership are a house built on the five foundational aspects of great followers discussed above. Each of those qualities refines and strengthens the individual, equipping them for greater and greater responsibility. The mastery of these qualities, the refining of their execution, and their development into ingrained behaviors is best done in the role of a follower. As such they are a contributor to overall accountability but not the one with the final responsibility for it, so have ample opportunity to learn, fail, and grow without putting the health of the enterprise at risk. As they master these qualities they are equipping themselves for increasingly greater personal responsibility.
As leaders, they then bring each of these qualities into their own leadership role. This will in turn amplify the leadership qualities which they currently have, or will be learning.
Further, they will then be able to model for their own followers the behaviors which those followers should demonstrate; they will be able to coach their followers on how to acquire and demonstrate those qualities, and they will clearly be in a position to expect that those qualities be displayed.