Leadership with Followership: Part 1

We’re living in a world in which everyone is encouraged to be a leader, and in which leadership is celebrated and held up as the solution to all business challenges. Thousands of books, courses, seminars, and degree programs have been designed to identify and engineer various aspects of successful leadership.

With so much effort and investment in this single idea, why is there still such a mysterious lack, as there appears to be, of skillful leaders? And if leadership is the answer to every problem, why do we still struggle to establish and sustain healthy office cultures?

One answer is that leadership has become a moving target. Because we use the term so ubiquitously and so broadly, it can be difficult to identify what exactly effective leadership is and how to practice it. There are hundreds of conflicting philosophies on the role of the leader, and dozens of leadership styles. In the aggregate, nearly all desirable professional qualities have at one point or another been labeled aspects of good “leadership.”

But I think there’s another answer, a blind spot in the corporate paradigm. Leading, as essential as it is, is only half of the equation. The collection of skills and qualities needed to build creative working relationships are not aspects of one thing, but aspects of two things: leading and following, and we’ve been completely ignoring the following.

Amidst the avalanche of leadership literature, you may have noticed a paradox. Leaders need to communicate clearly, but they also need to listen; they need to see the big picture but also attend to the details; they must strive for individual excellence but also put the good of the community first.

These paradoxes are, indeed, the mark of great leaders, but that’s because great leaders are also great followers. Leaders who balance these and other paradoxes of the workplace have incorporated crucial followership skills into their roles as leaders. It’s dangerous to group all of these skills under the leadership banner because that can make them harder to understand and learn, and can also make them less accessible to those who are not named leaders, by title, in their organizations.

It is the opinion of this author that the most dynamic teams and companies are filled with employees who are all skilled in both sets of skills, leadership and followership. They employ these skills both as their ranking title requires and also wherever they are needed, to uplift one another in the day-to-day operation of the organization. Companies that overlook the power of followership skills, or restrict them to named leaders in the guise of additional “leadership” attributes, are overlooking valuable resources within their own walls. The rapidly shifting economic, social, and environmental landscape demands that we fire on all cylinders, and we need active followership to balance our business world and help create powerful, integrated, organizations.                                                                                       

How Leaders Can Empower Followers

In order to have a practical discussion of what authentic leadership is and what it can do for followers, it’s essential to recognize that when we currently think of leadership, we’re typically overshooting the target. What we think of as leading is very often over-leading, and we must reset our understanding of the leader’s role if we’re going to become good at it.

Think of leading and following are two inseparable modes of being that want to rest in balance, like two sides of an old fashioned scale. If leading is too heavy, following will be too light. If leading is exaggerated, following will be muted. By nudging the concept of leading toward equilibrium, I believe we will get better and better at creating flexible and robust working relationships with followers, and with the concept of following in general.

How will this nudging occur? By streamlining our idea of leadership, and allowing room for followership to activate in response. This post identifies ways of interacting in work relationships that place us firmly in the leader role without diminishing the value of what those around us can offer. On the contrary, the analysis below hopes to illustrate how specific leader orientations can empower followers to fulfill more of their potential.

Treasure Planet, Disney pictures

Treasure Planet, Disney pictures

1. Navigation provides context for followers to engage their specialized expertise

Imagine the leader in a helicopter (or a flying ship), with an aerial view of the landscape, and the followers on the ground with all of the tools to build a road.

With the benefit of a wider perspective, the leader sends down directions to guide the followers’ work. Go around this mountain, cross this river, turn left, continue straight. As they build the road one section at a time, the followers focus on all of the necessary details of their work. They operate the tools, overcome obstacles, and devise the most efficient way to clear the path. Without the leader, the followers can’t navigate from point A to point B, but without the followers, there is no road at all. Both are fulfilling distinct roles. Both are indispensable, and neither can do the other’s work.

In the office, the map the leader creates is not usually a map of land, but a map of time. When tasks are developed and completed, and how they synchronize with other tasks – these are the kinds of directions that leaders often provide to followers. Leaders stay focused on the long term goal (the aerial view) precisely so that they can give these directions, often in the form of timelines and project plans. These allow followers to maintain a short-term focus, devoting their full attention to one segment of work at a time. This is not necessarily a hierarchical relationship, although we are used to thinking of it that way. Both long-term and short-term views are needed for the work to progress, just as they are for building a road.

Maintaining the big picture focus can feel challenging because it requires us to take our hands off the steering wheel and give followers the freedom to operate it according to their own best judgement. Since we do not share the same perspective with our followers, we have to acknowledge that even if we have driven the truck in the past and know how it works, we are no longer in the driver's seat and cannot see what is immediately in front of us. We can only see the overall trajectory, whether over land or through time. It is the followers who must determine, with our guidance, at what angle to insert the shovel or how to code the program. We as leaders must trust them with these decisions, and prepare to give the next direction when it is time, and then the next, and the next.

Immersion in limited sections of work is creatively liberating. Though paradoxical, it is nevertheless true that rules and limitations are very often what spark creative solutions, and this is precisely what that a focused leader does for a follower by choosing a specific direction or work segment and eliminating all other possibilities. Freed from the need to make decisions or map out the entire process, the follower more readily enters a creative problem-solving mode to address only the current piece, and is able to explore that piece fully and deeply. 

Whether our roles are fixed by rank or shared within a partnership or team, this interaction of the leader’s broad view and the follower’s deep view is a critical aspect of robust, original, and sustainable work.

Ways to navigate clearly:

1. Spend time alone with the map of the terrain (or calendar)
2. Be as specific as possible with requests and assignments
3. Be willing to revise in light of new information (from followers or other sources)
4. Trust in your followers’ abilities

How do you navigate in positions of leadership? And as a follower, are there times you need to exercise the leadership skill of navigation, either for yourself or for others? Check back next week for Part 2 of this article, which shares two additional ways that leaders can empower followers. To join the mailing list and be notified of new posts, fill out the form in the top right column!