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The Critical Role of Followership in Leadership

By Sue Wigston on July 16, 2019

Effective leadership in an organization is essential, but if teams are unable to carry out the vision, even the best leaders will not be able to meet their goals. This is why followership is a critical role that is often overlooked in an organization. There are many resources dedicated to identifying potential leaders and grooming them to ascend in the organization, but what about followers?

Whether an organization or project will succeed or fail depends in part on the actions and behaviors of followers. Just as an individual in a position of leadership is not necessarily a good leader, not all employees have the skills to be effective followers. Understanding the traits of a good follower will help all individuals play that role when necessary, and also help leaders cultivate good followership.

Understanding the Role of Followers

The role of a follower is not a simple one. It doesn’t just mean following directions or blindly accepting everything a leader says. Good followership is characterized by active participation in the pursuit of organizational goals. In many cases, this means working independently, being accountable for your actions, and taking ownership of necessary tasks.

The catch is that it’s common for followers to not be recognized for their accomplishments in these areas, even though they are essential to the success of the organization. Although it can feel like a thankless role, many followers take great satisfaction in the work they do and embrace followership. An individual might relish being a follower because they:

  • Enjoy participating in a team
  • Want to deeply understand the leadership role that they someday might step into
  • Prefer to step back from leadership in some contexts
  • Understand the value of their contributions to the overall success of the organization

Regardless of the motivation, a good follower sees that their role is indeed essential, and good leaders should gain a clear understanding of the role of followers as well.

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Understanding Types of Followers

A researcher at Harvard Business Review developed a system for categorizing followers using two metrics: 1) active versus passive, and 2) independent critical thinking versus dependent uncritical thinking. Based on where an individual falls on each spectrum, there are five categories of followers:


The Role of Followership HBR

 

Survivors

Right in the middle of the scale, these people are adept at surviving change. They are able to adapt and conform to the situations around them, whether this means stepping up to take on an important task or quietly staying in the background.

Sheep

These are passive people who do not think critically and do not have a strong sense of responsibility.

 

Yes People

Yes people are those who will readily act when told what to do but depend heavily on leaders for guidance. They do not tend to be proactive.

 

Alienated Followers

These are independent critical thinkers who are not proactive in their roles. They can effectively carry out their roles, but there is often an undertone of dissatisfaction that prevents them from fully embracing their work and contributing to their fullest potential.  

 

Effective Followers

These are independent critical thinkers who follow through enthusiastically. Effective followers can succeed without leadership but respond to it well, making them ideal independent employees who also work well in teams.

Developing Effective Followers

An organization with effective followers often performs well because employees are driven self-starters who are motivated to support organizational goals and have the critical thinking skills to do so. To develop effective followers, an organization must:

 

Understand Leader and Follower Roles

Recognize that leaders need followers to carry out organizational initiatives, and ensure that leaders understand that the role of a follower is just as important as their own. These roles can be conveyed through training and modeling behavior when leaders are acting in the role of follower.

 

Teach Followership Skills

Don’t assume that people inherently know how to effectively follow. Teach them the necessary skills, such as accountability, self-management, and analytical thinking. This type of training can be done through coaching, mentoring, and experiential learning.

 

Include Followership in Performance Evaluations

Employees need feedback to improve their followership skills, and evaluating these skills during performance reviews highlights the importance of the role. Most reviews focus on leadership, but if you also shine a spotlight on followership, this will prompt employees to think about how they can also improve as a follower.

 

Create a Structure That Supports Followership

When creating teams, think about how you can incorporate the concept of followership. This might include:

  • Creating small committees with no clear leader
  • Rotating leadership positions on a team
  • Delegating certain decisions or tasks to lower-level employees
  • Rewarding followers who take on an active role in a project and are vital to its success

Conclusion

It’s important to recognize that a follower is a role and not necessarily an individual. It is often the case that an employee who excels at followership is also an excellent leader. Identifying and cultivating followers is just as important as developing strong leaders and can even be the early stages of leadership development.

For more helpful tips on how to become a stronger leader, read The Leader's Pocket Guide for Leading Yourself, Others & the Organization.

The Leader's Pocket Guide for Leading Yourself, Others & the Organization

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As Chief Operating Officer, Sue's extensive senior leadership experience and facilitation skills have established her as a trusted partner and organizational development expert. She has a proven track record of successfully leading culture transformation in Fortune 500 companies and has established herself as an authority on training and development. Sue has over 20 years of experience in the creation and delivery of programs and custom designed solutions for Eagle's Flight.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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