Empowered Followership Part 3

This week is the third installment of the 3-part series on Empowered Followership, in which I replace outdated stereotypes of this role with inspiring characteristics that we want to see and embody ourselves on the dance floor and in the work place. Thank you to those who have been reading along for the past couple of weeks! If you missed the earlier posts, please check them out here and here, as well as other related posts listed in the right side column.

Stereotype #3: Passivity
Empowered Quality #3: Readiness

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

The idea that the follower role is a passive one is perhaps the most ironic stereotype of all. Think about this: to follow a person down a path, to maintain a “safe following distance” behind another car, to follow an author or media outlet, even to follow a Facebook group, requires an act of deliberate, intentional participation. It implies movement and engagement, choice even. And as a tango dancer, the experience of followership for me is a highly active, kinetic state. Even the Spanish words we inherit for tango make the character of the following role quite clear:

hacer: to do [a movement]
tomar, to take [a step]
responder: to respond [to a signal]

Unfortunately, the term “follow” still carries a negative connotation in everyday English, as if a person taking this role had no power, no animating force of his or her own. Obviously, this is not true, but to fully analyze the misunderstanding would take us down a deep rabbit hole of cultural studies, and I shall not venture that way now. Instead, I will lay out as best I can what happens when we adopt Passivity as a way of being on and off the dance floor, and also what happens when, instead, we choose to embody Readiness.

In dance, a passive posture makes us heavy. There is a lag in our response time, creating excess pressure and resistance against our partner. Thinking that the other will move us, motivate us, or somehow infuse us with energy, we wait, focused not on moving ourselves but on physically being moved. Owing to the laws of physics, it’s not actually possible for someone else to move us without a great deal of force, and force is not the goal of a graceful creative relationship.

Seeing ourselves as passive also makes us less aware of the other person and of the environment in general. With less awareness, our steps are uninformed by important variables such as where exactly the partner’s center of gravity rests in relation to us, or whether the dance floor is crowded, orderly, or chaotic. Without a keen grasp of these variables, we become less able to step precisely, less invested in any given moment as an expressive opportunity, instead hoping the leader will somehow make us feel or look elegant or beautiful.

In Readiness, however, we take responsibility for our part in the dance. We’re light, responding fluidly to the leader’s signal. In command of our own weight, we note subtle changes in our partner and in the environment and shift our balance or position accordingly. There is a sense of possibility in our embrace, in our stride. Strength and softness harmonize in our body. We maintain our connection to the musical thread from beginning to end, filling each step and each pause with our own unique quality of movement.

Passivity in the work place might manifest as unwillingness to contribute one’s own ideas, lack of personal investment or curiosity in a project, or reluctance to engage with a challenging problem. When following in this way, employees may do the bare minimum required, or what they think is required, by the leader. In meetings, they may not express interest in how their work fits into a larger initiative or industry trend, or appreciate the complexity of factors contributing to the company's success, making it difficult for them to communicate and strategize with others about longer term goals or plans.

On the other hand, a follower standing in readiness enters the meeting well-prepared for these conversations. He is up to date on the latest developments in his field. He has done the research on the potential client. He is ready to contribute and confident in his ability to do so, and so when a question comes, he responds with meaningful and relevant ideas. Please note that ready is not the same as obedient. In obedience, the follower acts without personal reflection. He is not so much contributing something of himself but rather fulfilling an established task that is typically a well-trodden path. (See Part I of this series in which we replace Obedience with Support)

In readiness, however, we don’t know what his response will be to any given circumstance. He himself may not know. What he does know is that his preparation makes it likely that he will add something to the conversation that would not be there without him. He is not just anyone in that meeting, he is an informed and insightful voice, often able to gently point out gaps in the logic of his leader, or to articulate a perspective not yet on the table.

In readiness, we know that success of any interaction with a leader depends on us showing up with our A-game. We know that the project will only be as good as what we are prepared to offer, and that abdicating all responsibility to the leader is not only a missed opportunity for us; it puts a drag on the entire process.

Good dance? Successful project bid? The leader gets all the credit. Bad dance? Rejected proposal? The leader gets all the blame. Where are we followers in this equation? When we follow, we are not blank slates on which the leader imposes his or her opus or train wreck. We are not merely instruments of someone else’s fully-formed idea. We are active participants in the dance or in the company, and we share the responsibility for what happens there.

Next up, look for a series on Empowered Leadership Qualities, coming soon. If you'd like to be notified when new articles are posted, please sign up for my mailing list in the right hand column.

Author’s Note: I want to add here that I'm aware that, ultimately, words are arbitrary, and that what I'm describing as "ready" may well be someone else's understanding of "passive." Still, words are often the best indicators we have of the felt experience we’re trying to cultivate. The words I’ve chosen in this series are ones that I hope might help to flip the empowered/disempowered coin, and nudge you toward a more satisfying and expressive experience in whatever sphere you find yourself following.