Empowered Followership Part I

Over the past several decades, our understanding of following (and in response, leading) has been undergoing quite a sea change, not only on the dance floor, but in the professional realm as well. Happily, we’re getting a clearer picture of what inspired (and inspiring) followership looks like. Corporate and organizational training programs, more and more, articulate followership skills alongside leadership skills, and these new definitions surely come, at least in part, from releasing old stereotypes and stigmas about the concept of following itself.

Like other social roles, I imagine leading and following as fluid concepts that transform over time, as value systems and norms of behavior shift. In this 3-part blog series, I propose three empowered followership qualities to replace three outdated stereotypes. Interestingly, I notice that these stereotypes are often self-imposed by dancers as they are first learning the following role, or who default to following in social situations. One could definitely analyze the gendered aspect of this stereotyping as well, but that is outside the scope of this article.

For now, I hope an exploration of the qualities themselves might help to paint an updated picture of followership, independent of gender, because in life, we are all followers some of the time. Let’s celebrate how, in that role, we can contribute to our dancing and to our professional work in tangible, powerful ways.

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

Stereotype # 1: Obedience
Empowered Quality #1: Support

There are times when, in the following role, it may be appropriate to be “obedient.” When another couple charges across the dance floor and the leader halts quickly to avoid a collision, you would be wise to freeze on command. On a tight deadline, an exclamation of “I need this copy fact-checked!” is probably not something you would question. It’s clear in these instances that the order of the alarmed “leader” is urgent and that an immediate and specific response, a.k.a. “obedience,” is the best course of action.

Taken as a general rule, however, the idea of obedience is extremely limiting. It leads to a short-term hyper-focus on the small details of one’s own dancing or work, and a tendency to assign both responsibility and blame to the leader because, hey, you’re just doing what you’re told, so it can’t be your fault, right?

Support, on the other hand, is much broader in scope. When we’re following in a supportive way, we understand that our individual efforts are connected to a larger process (a whole dance, a whole project). When we take a supportive stance, we see collaboration as a natural part of our work, and assume a shared responsibility, with the leader, for the success of any given venture.

On the dance floor, thinking about obedience tends to make us focus exclusively on the technical execution of single steps or short patterns. Movements can feel clipped and mechanical, often punctuated with artificial breaks. In the case of miscommunication, we tend to blame the leader, and allow inaccuracies in timing or position, however slight, to throw us off balance.

If our intention, however, is to be supportive, we’re more likely to create flow from one step to the next, considering the dance as a whole. We accept and smooth out miscommunications, and fix inaccuracies with tiny adjustments to our own posture or placement. This kind of support makes it easier for leaders to navigate the floor safely and improvise original, artful dances.

How might supportive following look in the office? It’s a question easier asked than answered, because the nature of professional work is so much more varied than vocabulary on the dance floor.

But let’s imagine it anyway. Say you are working on a project managed by a “leader.” In your following capacity, your part in the project may be a small detail, a logo for a marketing campaign or a single feature of a custom-coded application.

Even though you are not the designated leader, it’s probably critical for you to know and understand how your part will be used in the context of the entire project, and for you to keep this in mind while you work. It might also be important that you not isolate yourself from the input of others, but rather remain open to dialogue and feedback. Finally, when schedules shift due to outside forces, it would be a tremendous skill to gracefully adapt to change, rather than becoming resentful or creatively blocked.

A supportive approach to followership includes “obeying” in urgent situations, but also has a wider perspective that allows us, as a general rule, to respond to leadership requests in creative ways that can’t always be foreseen. On the dance floor, I call this skill, “micro-navigation,” or the knack of placing oneself in exactly the right position to balance the couple (the leader, by contrast, is the macro-navigator, steering the couple around the space based on the shifting positions of other couples).

In micro-navigation, we acknowledge that it is not possible for one person to efficiently move another, just like it isn’t possible for a manager to do the designer’s work for him. On the dance floor, the leader can indicate generally where, but the follower must decide precisely where to step. Most often the manager doesn’t know exactly what shape and color or line of code will convey the message most clearly. She just knows, hey, there’s this logo or application that needs to be designed, and this is the general direction of it. If the designer(s) respond supportively, not obediently, to this challenge, they will apply all of their creative skills to the task, contextualizing their work appropriately and remaining flexible even as the direction of the project evolves.

Utilizing dance as a kinetic metaphor, we can further observe that empowered followership qualities are not only embodied by the “following” partner, but by “leaders” as well. When a dancer feels supported by her leader, she moves more freely and confidently. When your manager supports your work, you likely perform better and take more creative initiative. Like the qualities of leadership (stay tuned for a post on that later), qualities of followership are available to all of us, all the time, and increasingly, it’s clear that we need them both to maximize our own potential and to enable the collective potential of our teams and companies.

Tune in next week when we’ll replace Stereotype #2: Perfection, with Empowered Quality #2: Excellence!

Got an example of supportive followership in the work place? Please leave your stories in the comments!