How Following Makes Us Better Leaders (And How Followers Make Leaders Better): Part 1

As it’s generally used, the term follower is not very inspiring, often associated with bland thinking or rote behavior. No wonder, in our daily lives, we sometimes resist or outright avoid situations that seem to put us in a following role, or diminish our sense of ourselves as “leading” our own lives. Think of consulting a doctor or asking for directions. Maybe we’re reluctant to receive these types of guidance because to receive, or to follow, feels somehow inferior or inadequate. Perhaps if we more readily acknowledged the value of being guided, we might be able to stand in these following positions more comfortably, aware that spending some time following actually makes our leading better!

In the case of our health, it’s easy to see how this can be true. The doctor has information that we most likely do not, so when we receive it, we can then make better decisions about our own well-being. But it’s also true in the work place. Our colleagues have different perspectives and insights than ours, regardless of their ranking position. Sharing ideas and opinions is something we’re more likely to acknowledge as valuable, because it’s an aspect of leadership. What’s harder to appreciate is that the willingness to hear those ideas and opinions holds equal significance, and it’s that openness to hear that characterizes effective following. When we really hear one other, we act and choose from a wider perspective, adjust our own behavior, and express ourselves with greater wisdom.

If you’ve ever had an argument with someone, you’ve most likely experienced the frustration of not being heard. You express your view, and then the other person expresses hers. You restate your belief more persuasively, and she counters by restating her own, perhaps with more volume. The conversation goes back and forth, but no real connection or progress is made.

If you were to really listen to the other person, though, and attempt to grasp her point of view, your response may be different. You may well begin to gain an understanding of why she believes what she does, and possibly feel empathy for that position. As a result, you speak different words and deliver them with a different tone, and the relationship shifts. The conversation may now evolve.

We are strongly invested in every person’s individual capacity for leadership, and of course we should be, but what if part of being a great leader is actually being a great follower? And what if the named leaders in our organizations actually do their jobs better when those around them practice followership skills with commitment and integrity? This series of articles explores how that happens by highlighting three aspects of followership: support, commitment to excellence, and active listening.

Illustration by Ray Eckermann

Illustration by Ray Eckermann

1. Leaders excel when they are given strong support

We tend to think of “support” or “help” as subservient actions, and certainly if we make that assumption, we will all limit ourselves in these roles. We’ll expect very little from those who support us, underestimating their capacity and making sure what they do is not critical to the larger project or mission. If I’m baking a cake, I may ask you to clean the flour off the counter, but not measure the ingredients. When we treat helping and helpers in this way, it’s true that they are NOT very important. But what we don’t always realize is that by restricting the scope of what helping can be, and what helpers, or followers, can do, we’re also restricting what leaders can do. The number and complexity of cakes that I bake will be low if I insist on doing everything myself. The more the helper (follower) is permitted to contribute to the baking process, the more the chef (leader) can design and direct, and the more impressive the output of the kitchen. Clear, solid, context-specific support may be among the most underappreciated, and therefore under-cultivated, resource in the work place.

Let’s look at some other examples, in which support is given more equal standing, and where certain goals and achievements are impossible without it.

Imagine you are climbing the side of a cliff, and your helper is a friend holding the rope on the ground, tracking your ascent by letting out the slack, providing counterweight so that if you slip, you will be caught safely in your harness. How about the fastidious editor who spends hours re-arranging and fact-checking your manuscript until it is a finished work? Or, the intelligence officer who informs you, the General, that the field is laced with explosives. The “following” work provided in these circumstances is not optional, but essential, and equally as valuable as the leading work. Only with this kind of empowered support does the leader climb the mountain, publish the book, and safely direct the military.

What if we prized and cultivated this kind of followership in the work place? When your employees help you build a presentation, how much do you invite them to contribute? Are they simply proofreading your copy and formatting your slides, or are they doing research to inform the content itself? Are they bringing their own problem-solving skills to the question of how to structure the information, how to present it visually, how to convey it in language? With this kind of complex support, you might make more sophisticated decisions, see connections where you didn’t before, deliver a more robust presentation to your client.

If we understand how much more our leaders are capable of with this kind of strong support, perhaps we will find it easier to name following as a desirable mode of action, and train ourselves to be able to do it.

Ways to be a supportive follower:
1. align your work with project and organization priorities
2. trust your leader’s judgement and direction
3. know your skills and how they can serve in specific contexts
4. ask yourself what you can do to make the leader’s job easier
5. expect change and be willing to adapt even when it’s inconvenient

What are some ways you have felt supported in your work, or given strong support to a leader?