I was talking to a fellow coach the other day about leadership coaching and he mentioned the concept of “followership.” I was immediately struck by this: we are inundated with exhortations about how to be a good leader, but rarely hear about what it takes to be a good follower.
In fact, as noted in a note in the July 2008 edition of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, “American culture usually does not hold followers in very high regard. Fascination with leaders far outweighs any consideration for followers. But, at some point, everyone is following, rather than leading.”
So why does followership matter? Because it’s the followers who get the work done. It’s the followers who determine the success or failure of an organization, project, or other enterprise. And giving followership the respect it deserves enables both leaders and followers to build a more effective and harmonious organization.
There are many definitions of followership. One I liked was in the FBI Bulletin above: “Followership … represents an interaction that occurs when subordinates work concurrently with leaders toward a goal of the organization.” Another one was from a 2006 article by a faculty member at Dalton State College, “Followership is the willingness to cooperate in working towards the accomplishment of the organization’s goals and objectives, to demonstrate a high degree of teamwork and to build cohesion among the group.”
What’s key in both of these definitions is that the follower’s position is not inferior to the leader’s. It’s complementary.
The two articles set out a number of traits that characterize “good followership.” These include intelligence, independent and critical thinking, self-reliance, dependability, and creativity. Good followers also take responsibility for their actions and speak truthfully. I would add that good followers also work and play well with others.
Two other points: It is a key task of leaders to respect and teach good followership. It’s a concept that goes beyond expectation-setting and evaluation because it gives the subordinate’s role value and worth. And as both articles point out, the characteristics of a good follower are also those of a good leader and today’s followers are tomorrow’s leaders.
It’s an idea worth pondering. Based on my experience in workplaces, more attention to the concept of followership — on the part of leaders and followers — could significantly improve productivity and morale. ~AS