The Case for "Followership" in the Work Place

Photo by John Healey 2008

Photo by John Healey 2008

As I write and talk with people about leading and following, I find many parallels between the dance floor and the professional world of employment. In social dance, I’m often asked why it’s important for women to lead or why men should learn to follow. Why is the current system inadequate? Why can’t we just go on the way we have been for decades? In the professional world, the question is even more extreme: Why do we need “followership” at all? Isn’t a leader what everyone should be? Aren’t leadership qualities what everyone should develop?

Yes, of course, but I believe that much is to be gained from everyone also being a follower and also developing followership qualities. This discussion may seem like just an exercise in semantics. Can’t we just drop the term follower in the public sphere, since no one wants to be one anyway? Can’t we just say “team player” instead, and get the same effect? To some extent, this approach has been successful, but I don’t think it is enough.

The concept of a leader with her team is still a hierarchical structure, and the unique power of the leader-follower dyad lies in its balanced and complementary nature. The pair is the sociological building block of any community, and it is in the pair (or in lots and lots of pairs, rather) that we can experience the unique alchemy of these two complementary modes of engagement. It is in the pair that we have the chance learn how the exchanging of leading and following actions elevates the capacity of each member of the partnership, and therefore the partnership itself, in a way that is rarely, if ever, achieved by other means. Although he doesn't use leading and following terminology, I highly recommend Joshua Wolf Shenk's brilliant exploration of one-on-one collaboration, Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity.

In social dance, the case for leadership-followership fluency has always been made clear for me by two explicit phenomena: 1. the spontaneous emergence of empathy that comes from literally seeing and feeling the dance from the opposite perspective than you are accustomed to (most of us have a tendency toward one role or the other), and 2. the versatility displayed by dancers who learn in this manner.

As dancers, we may unconsciously diminish the following role, but the reality of physical partnership means that we can never deny the need for its presence entirely. In the work place, though, the term leadership is ubiquitous and the term followership scarce (though this is changing). In dance, there can be no leading without following, but is this also true in the office? I believe that it is.

Without skillful communication among their members, groups will ultimately fall short of their collective potential, regardless of the excellent efforts of individuals. An office community is a matrix of one-to-one relationships, overlapping and interwoven to form either a flexible, robust structure or a tangled mess, or, more likely, something in the middle.

The dynamic within this matrix of pairings determines its level of integrity (think of the engineer who responds defensively to constructive feedback, or the manager who disregards the concerns of her sales reps). What if these breakdowns in communication represent missing or underdeveloped following skills? Conceptually, leading and following as complementary roles give us a wider lexicon to analyze, teach, and learn the communication skills that produce healthy and reliable collaboration within meetings, teams, and departments. We need to articulate clearly not only what constitutes effective leadership in these contexts, but also what constitutes effective followership. If we can name both of these communication modes with equally robust language, we may be able reach our goals more efficiently and successfully.

By becoming fluent in both roles, regardless of the position we hold in an organizational hierarchy, we are more equipped to uplift and be uplifted by other members of our company or our community on a regular basis. And, perhaps most interestingly, in learning both leading and following communication skills, our established, hierarchical positions themselves take on bolder and more complex meaning.


Reclaiming your Inner Follower

I am aware that the current mainstream concept of a “follower” is a lesser or even entirely undesirable status, similar to how femininity has been viewed in the public sphere for quite some time. We push girl children more and more toward science, business, and other masculinized and male-dominant professions, but we do not encourage boy children toward home-making, care-giving, and other feminized and female-dominant areas. This is shifting, of course, but its residue is still very much a part of our collective psyche.

Not surprising, then, that “following” has become a container for all things undesirable in the work world (think of passive, hesitant, uncritical, cog-in-the-wheel cartoon characters). Who wants to be that person? No one. In avoiding the term follower, though, we tend to hold up all desired behaviors and communication practices as examples of effective “leadership.” This is problematic because it’s not entirely accurate. We have a left and right brain. We live in light and in darkness, and we see and understand the world in pairs of things. If leading is good and following is bad, our understanding of collaboration is lopsided, and we operate below our potential.

I propose that reclaiming (and re-defining) followership is one way to design a more balanced, functional, and empowered work force. As we do this, we must also refine and specify our concept of leadership as well, in the same way that the feminist movement ultimately challenges us not only to re-conceptualize female roles, but male roles as well. In undertaking this imaginative project together, we advance our understanding of how we communicate and work together.

If followership were a set of valued and desired traits, what would those traits be? Stay tuned for a series of postings on how to cultivate strong following qualities, coming later this month.