Elliot, a technical engineer, was assigned to monitor a piece of machinery he was unfamiliar with. Over the first few weeks, he had questions for the supervisor in charge, but when he asked, the supervisor repeatedly sent him to another division or another person. Unfortunately, those other people didn’t have the answers either. Frustrated, Elliot started looking up old records and asking people outside his division, hoping that he could solve the puzzle on his own.
Weeks later, having pieced together many bits of information, he was attending a presentation with several other engineers, senior executives, and the same supervisor who had failed to help before. That supervisor, out of nowhere, said, “Ok, Elliot, over to you.” Unprepared, Elliot nevertheless managed to get the presentation started and guide the group into a productive conversation.
In this story, the supervisor is in a leadership role, but he is not leading very well. You could say he is directing Elliot, but what good is direction if it only wastes time? You could say he is giving Elliot an opportunity to speak, but what good is that opportunity if the follower is not setup to succeed?
You could easily point out what the supervisor might have done instead. He could have thought more carefully about where Elliot might find answers, and he could have given Elliot adequate notice before expecting him to speak in the meeting. But you could also look at this story another way.
What is Elliot doing? How is he showing up as a follower to support the organization despite unfavorable odds? Other engineers might have given up when they didn’t find answers the first few times. Elliot instead starting talking to anyone who would listen. Another engineer might have refused to speak in the meeting. Instead, Elliot improvised on the spot.
Sometimes great followership is easier to see when leadership is passive or poorly executed.
Strong Followership Boosts Leader Success
Research on organizational outcomes indicates that strong followership boosts leader success rates. Whether he acknowledges it or not, the supervisor in this story is benefitting from Elliot’s committed and resourceful followership. No one in senior management suspects anything is amiss. In fact, the credit for smooth running of the machinery and the meeting will probably go to the supervisor. That hardly seems fair.
Moreover, what happens when this passive leader is promoted or reassigned and does not have a strong follower like Elliot to mask his poor performance? Great followers save the day in a thousand ways all the time, with or without great leaders; yet because no one speaks about, recognizes, or celebrates followership, we rarely see it happening.
Credit often goes to the wrong person, or to no one. Smart, capable followers like Elliot get frustrated and leave. Executives run surveys that report high engagement and are mystified by simultaneous high turnover–an apparent contradiction. Substantial losses occur because many professionals ascend the proverbial ladder without ever acquiring substantial leadership skills.
This happens because from above, you can’t always tell whether someone is leading well. You see this most clearly from below, from the followership perspective.
You can imagine, perhaps, how much more successful and efficient Elliot would have been in this scenario with a more skilled leader. But despite poor leadership, employees like Elliot frequently get work done anyway by relying on a different set of skills. They use followership skills. Here are a few that Elliot uses in this story:
- Engagement – Contrary to what many management books and trainings claim, leaders cannot simply increase “employee engagement” through their own actions or policies. Engagement is a choice. In Elliot’s story, that’s very clear, because his supervisor is not doing anything to encourage engagement at all. In many ways, he is discouraging Yet Elliot is persistent, and finds alternative ways to problem solve and gather information. He thinks critically and continues to self-educate. He chooses to remain engaged.
- Flexibility – When the established method of problem-solving fails, Elliot thinks beyond his job description–and even beyond his chain of command–to the bigger goal. Entirely on his own initiative, he builds new relationships and does extra research. This is the opposite of the follower stereotype you are likely familiar with, the one that casts followers as single-minded task rabbits. Instead, Elliot thinks broadly about what needs to be done and experiments until he discovers a path forward.
- Bravery – Despite being caught off-guard, Elliot lets go of any potential hesitation, fear, or self-critique and gets the meeting started anyway. He stays in the moment and does his best given the circumstances without blaming, defending, or making excuses.
To start seeing from the followership perspective, no matter what your title or position, think about the moments in which you follow someone else’s leadership.
What are you doing, in your followership role?
What you notice from that perspective, compared to situations in which you are the leader?
What kinds of leadership actions and behaviors are important to you as a follower?
For more insights on leadership and followership, check out my book, Lead & Follow: The Dance of Inspired Teamwork