Leadership with Followership: Part 2


This post continues a discussion of how leaders can empower followers to engage more powerfully in the work place. While hierarchical structures are necessary to establish accountability and get things done, collaborative structures are also necessary, to make full use of our human resources and maximize creative potential. To achieve moments or sustained periods of collaboration, a shift in how we understand both leadership and followership is neccessary. If you missed Part 1 of this article, you might want to go back and start there!

2. Articulating core values allows followers to contribute

Naming and embodying your core values not only attracts new followers who are a strong match for your organization; it also provides an anchor for followers who are already there. But embodied values not only increase retention in the traditional sense; they also keep followers’ outlook positive and fuel their work ethic. We all manage fatigue and distraction on a daily basis; it’s part of being human. And the pace of our lives today is more overwhelming than ever. As we build companies that aim to make real and lasting impact in the world, leaders must build an organizational foundation with sincere and deliberate values that will uplift and energize followers over the long term.

The values that leaders choose become a reference point for followers, the ideas that they orient themselves toward and rely on for guidance, whether you are in the room or not. These values keep them connected to the mission of the organization and to their own creative power to fulfill it. Values articulation is not only important at the top-most level of an organization, it is also essential for leadership at all levels, even those of us who may only act as leaders for a few minutes at a time, in the course of a conversation. The inner leader is the part of you who sets your ethical compass; it’s how you make choices about how to arrange your life and navigate the professional world. If you’re out of touch with your inner leader, you may feel uncertain about what to do when conflict arises.

Values, especially when fully embodied by leaders, inspire followers’ patterns of speech, behavior, and decision making. What does integrity look like when you’re meeting a new client? How about when you’re giving a presentation? When you’re alone at your desk? Burying your values in an employee handbook will not inspire. Values need to be visible, practiced in both word and action at all times. Gaps between what the leader says and does will be quickly noticed by followers, and will rapidly erode any accumulated trust, goodwill, and inspiration.

A leader focused on inspiring followers gives time and space for them to do their best work, because only followers, at the end of the day, know what their best work is. By articulating and practicing specific values, followers are free to connect with them and support them in a variety of ways that leaders can rarely predict or think to ask for in the first place. Because everyone connects with a core value like integrity based on his or her own real life experience, the responses that it may provoke are as diverse as the followers who inhabit the organization, and that diversity is a tremendous strength. The leader who provides this kind of freedom of interpretation to followers makes room for that strength to grow within the organization.

Ways to inspire followers:

1. Provide clear parameters for your expectations
2. Embody your stated values in word and action
3. Recognize instances of followers doing the same
4. Believe in your followers’ potential

3. Collaboration encourages followers to think proactively

One of the most transformative positions you can take as a leader, both for yourself and for others, is to place yourself in a dynamic creative relationship with followers. Depending on your context, followers might be customers, team members, clients, investors, or stakeholders of some other kind. Collaboration does not mean everyone has equal influence or decision making at all times, but it does mean that power is shared in a way that fluctuates, and that there is a fundamental and ongoing exchange of ideas and resources. 

By establishing collaborative dialogue in the office or work environment, even if it is a remote environment, leaders facilitate a natural flow of creativity within the team, group, or company. For followers, connecting with individual creativity generates self-confidence and diminishes anxiety around the unknown. Leaders who model creative risk and “productive failure” encourage followers to be open-minded, curious, and optimistic. This kind of internal growth and development makes it more likely for followers to take ownership of their work.

When collaboration is normalized, followers become curious about how aspects of their work or of the business in general might be improved, and how they themselves might participate in that improvement. Once the current situation is made malleable through dialogue and exchange, the future is full of possibilities. By activating followers, a collaborative approach generates a stream of new ideas to discuss and new perspectives from which to gather valuable insight. Leaders, themselves, will begin thinking more expansively.

Different from the navigational directions discussed previously, clear and consistent communication from leaders establishes a collaborative relationship. Following is a responsive mode of interaction, so when leaders initiate dialogue, followers engage. Questions are addressed before problems arise, and relevant information flows between departments.

Ways to encourage collaboration:

1. Setup systems of sharing ideas and information
2. Solicit input and feedback
3. Make decisions that benefit everyone
4. Be curious about followers

Where might you introduce a more collaborative relationship with those who follow you?