How Following Makes Us Better Leaders (And How Followers Make Better Leaders): Part 2

Below is the second half of a 2-part article on how specific following behaviors in the work place make it easier for leaders to excel in their roles. These specific ways of being and interacting are 1. supporting the leader, 2. a commitment to excellence, and 3. active listening. Just like in the social dance world, the following role is generally under-celebrated in the professional world and represents a massive untapped resource. As more and more businesses start to incorporate social and environmental stewardship into their missions, reclaiming followership as an equal and complementary creative force can be a powerful way to re-invent how we work together. If you missed Part 1, you may want to go back and read that first.


2. High quality work allows leaders to advance the vision of an organization

Following roles are often defined by concrete task-based work: coding, writing, drawing, designing, delivering, calling, processing, etc. It is probably obvious that this kind of work is central to the success of any organization, and that the quality of it must be as high as possible. But what exactly does quality work do for our leaders? Why does it matter to the leader that your work is excellent?

Imagine you are managing a team of programmers, and several of them are uninspired and easily distracted. They slow the progress of the team, because others have to wait for them or because you yourself have to regularly check their work. Under these circumstances, a big chunk of your energy will be devoted to addressing negative interpersonal dynamics and adjusting timelines. You might seek a way to transform your followers’ perspective, and perhaps compensate in the meantime by enforcing a strict schedule or coaching them on how to take more responsibility.

On the other hand, when the primary work of the organization is reliably executed by its followers, leaders can turn their attention to envisioning the next evolution of the work, new applications for it, new ways to refine and re-define it. They can identify ways to further improve working conditions and internal communications. They can imagine and propose new projects that are especially suited to their followers’ talents. But leaders can only do this big-picture work if their followers consistently perform at their personal best and take full responsibility for the work that they do. As soon as reluctance, delay, or negative attitude creep in, the leader must compensate by getting overly involved in the followers’ work.

Even as we acknowledge its value to leadership in this way, the day to day activity of our work can be tiring and repetitive, and so maintaining a personal investment in it over time can be challenging. Of course we want to perform at our best, but what does that look like over time? Clearly it can’t be measured by the number of hours spent at a desk or the word count of a report.

Rather than measure against one another or even by an industry standard, I think the we have to measure against our own past history. Have we improved our core skills based on constructive feedback? Have we acquired new knowledge? Sought out new challenges? These are the relevant questions to ask when addressing and cultivating personal best. Challenging ourselves to continually evolve own own talents and professional interests is fundamentally empowering and is what enables every person to keep moving forward with engagement and curiosity.

Ways to cultivate and sustain personal excellence:

1. Determine what genuinely interests you in the work that you do
2. Let go of comparison and competition with colleagues
3. Set reasonable expectations for what you can accomplish each day, week, and month
4. Reduce distractions but take regular breaks
5. Give and receive feedback on specific, nonjudgmental terms


3. Active listening helps leaders think more clearly

When you’re not the one making decisions, it can be tempting to check out, to assume that because your role is not as visible, it is less important or even non-existent. But there is a great deal of power in holding space for a decision to be made, and in responding to such decisions with grace and commitment. By listening actively, waiting calmly, and asking thoughtful questions, followers can actually provoke more inspired thoughts and ideas from leaders. Whether in the context of long-term project planning or short-term assignments, listening without agendas, defensiveness, or critique is a crucial and learnable skill. But if we don’t think listening is important, then we will not train ourselves to become skilled in it, and we will not be able to interact in this empowered way with our leaders.

In the work place, the follower ability to listen actively complements the leader ability to share original ideas or give clear directions. Active listening isn’t necessarily a highly charged state. It can be relaxed and composed, a counterpoint to the leader’s often energized state. By offering this kind of focus and attention, we make it easier for the leader to think and to articulate her ideas. By fully hearing what she is saying, we may well grasp both the big picture and the subtler details with more accuracy. And by consistently offering a receptive space for the leader to express herself verbally, she becomes more comfortable and skilled at doing so over time.

If you’re still unsure about the power of listening, consider the concept of a sounding board, that person you call when you need to “talk through an idea.” With that person’s attention, patience, and occasional commentary, your idea soon crystallizes into something more articulate and actionable. We typically do this when we feel indecisive, the pros and cons circling endlessly in our minds. You call a friend or colleague, lay out your arguments for this new person’s waiting ears. Perhaps her questions prompt you to clarify your priorities, or perhaps simply in expressing your thoughts aloud to her, a realization surfaces. Somehow your path forward becomes clearer.

We do this naturally for one another in order to advance our thoughts and ideas. Listening is an innate human skill, but it is also a professional skill, and it can be honed to a level at which conversations at work (in private meetings, on the phone, around the table, anywhere) become more focused, creative, and insightful.

Ways to develop attentive listening:

1. Take three slow deep breaths before a conversation
2. Stretch, and then relax your body before a meeting
3. Believe that you have something valuable to learn from the speaker
4. Repeat the speaker’s exact words in your mind
5. Ask for clarification if you do not understand what was said