Did you ever play Follow the Leader as a child? Would it surprise you to learn that this game is excellent preparation for future leadership? People cannot lead effectively if they have not first learned how to follow. Ineffective followers have trouble distinguishing when it’s time to follow and when to lead.
The Art of Followership
There are probably no classes or seminars offered in followership. It might indeed be an art. Let me share a few of the characteristics of good followers that I have observed during the course of my career.
Listening. Good listening may be the primary characteristic of good followers. Many people say, “I hear you,” but did they really listen? Listen with your whole brain undistracted by internal dialogues. Listen in order to understand.
Focus. Good followers tend to be highly focused on results. They set aside any personal agendas that could disrupt that concentration.
Egolessness. Some people shine only when they are in the starring role. But good followers are comfortable playing a supporting role. They have honed the skills they need to lend support from the background. They are less concerned with credit than they are with successful completion of the task.
Relevance. Good followers stay close to the working environment because it gives their contributions a sense of reality. This is particularly important for executives acting as followers?like CIOs. Many a great idea has fallen flat because it lacked relevance.
Team orientation. The team’s effectiveness is a high priority for good followers. They do what will make the team succeed, sometimes at great personal risk. For them, there is no individual success if the team fails.
What Leaders Can Learn from Following
Followership skills can enhance your ability as a leader. Being “The Boss” is not necessarily the best approach to all problems. Sometimes it is easy to get so enamored of leadership that you exclude other roles. But situations in which it’s best for you to be a follower are opportunities to be a role model for your organization. Here’s what you can learn by being a follower.
Listen. Be open to the ideas of those around you. Some of the best ideas come from within the organization; don’t lose the opportunity to hear them. Be sensitive to the multiple constituencies you represent, and ensure their views are heard.
Learn. What challenges and obstacles do you face as a follower? Are there ways to eliminate any of them? It is much easier to recognize these things when you are in the role of follower instead of leader. Take note and plan on fixing the problems later to make life better for those who play this role every day. You can also learn how difficult it is to gracefully follow a direction with which you disagree. This will make you more empathetic in the future when you are leading on a controversial issue.
Enjoy. For the leader who carries the burden of responsibility every day, being a follower can be a fun and valuable experience. The view is different as a participant. Relax and enjoy the opportunity to focus on a single task rather than the multitude of problems that fill your ordinary day.
Reward. Support the followers in your organization. Their role is vital to everyone’s success. Be sure there is an appropriate balance of rewards between leaders and followers. This will encourage your staffers to hone the skills and gain the experiences that will ultimately make them better leaders.
Train. It is impossible to be the best at everything you’ll encounter in the course of doing business. When all eyes turn to you for every answer, learn how to turn responsibility back. Use low-risk situations as opportunities to let others demonstrate their leadership ability. A problem that someone else is more qualified to solve is your cue to step back.
I once stepped into an operation that had been led by a strong authoritarian manager. The first time I asked the staff, “How do you think we should do this?” I could see the fear in their eyes, wondering whether it was a test. It took some time to establish a balance of followership and leadership, but it was well worth the effort.
From Follower to Leader
If you want to make the journey from follower to leader, these actions will facilitate your path.
Observe. Study those who are viewed as successful leaders. Note how they make decisions, handle difficult situations, treat people and present their ideas. Try to emulate these behaviors when you are faced with similar challenges. It takes discipline to stop and think about how you want to handle a problem instead of just reacting, but with enough practice it will become a habit. You should also observe those who are not strong leaders. I have to admit I learned a lot about what not to do from my least favorite boss. I compiled a long list of things I would never do when I became a leader. Hopefully, I have lived up to that goal.
Test different perspectives. You know what you think should be done?but what’s the view from above you? Is there something your boss would focus on that you have ignored? Have you taken a broad enough approach? Have you considered all the constituencies that need to be represented? Learn to ask yourself these kinds of questions and then critique the results. Did a situation turn out the way you envisioned, or did you learn something new? How could you have learned it before taking action? This process will help you adopt a higher perspective to enhance your leadership journey.
Seek counsel. Try to build relationships with senior leaders. Seek their advice when faced with difficult decisions. Doing so will help you understand the mind-set of those at the top. They can also provide important feedback on how your actions are perceived. I got a lot of help from others as I was pursuing my career. Seeking counsel may seem difficult the first time you do it, but I always found people to be gracious with their time and advice. It was invaluable assistance.
Remember. While you are confidently striding down the path from followership to leadership, remember the journey. Remember the things you learned and the people who helped you. Try to reciprocate by helping those who come after you.
Learning to follow well will make you a better leader?whether you’re in that position now or working your way up. And both good followership and good leadership are required for a successful organization.