You lead, I’ll follow

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February 21st, 2017

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In my line of work I frequently find myself leading; leading projects, groups, or providing leadership in single moments of interaction with others. I enjoy it and work hard at it. However, sometimes the best I have to offer is my followership. Spotting times when what is required in a situation is skilful followership is something I’m becoming increasingly aware of. To me a follower is, amongst other things, someone who visibly stands at the leader’s side supporting their vision and who is consequently instrumental in rallying the troops. I’m good in this role – sometimes escaping the exposure of being the ‘leader’ can free me up to step into my most courageous and influential self and make things happen. The more I do work in the field of leadership development the more I witness others thriving in the same role.

Many people before me have recognised the component of followership in the conversations we have about leadership, but it’s fair to say it still remains a dramatically less studied and written about topic. Intuitively, it feels like a harder sell to the world of Leadership Development. Following can be perceived negatively and some attribute passivity and a powerlessness to the role. It is certainly less glorified, more subtle and sometimes not even visible.

But what is there to be learnt about great following and are the skills and behaviours aspirational enough to entice people to develop in them? In my view, followership skills are a specific set of behaviours and characteristics in their own right, distinct from leadership skills: for example upward influencing, proactivity, challenging, advising. In his book The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff emphasizes the need for courage when working with leaders. Courage to serve, to give tough feedback and to mirror back the impact of the leader’s actions. He suggests that if followers keep organisational goals at the heart of their motivations when challenging leadership, then they can do so with a clear conscience. In reality, followers too are human and other motivations – competition, envy, ambition – also play a part.

So how to explain the times when implicitly or explicitly my leader was following me? Studying followership as a role-based theory where formal hierarchies dictate who is leader and who is follower starts to feel limited here. Some are studying followership as a social process, co-created by the dialogue between individuals i.e. when I am obeying I am opting to follow, to allow you to influence me. After all, I quite frequently follow my 3 year old but she’s not the leader of our family unit…yet.

Maybe it’s time to recognise that great results in business are sometimes about great followership and not just great leadership. Is it realistic to expect that we can all aspire to be leaders in all situations? Let’s not forget the permission to recognise when others are more suited to the position of ‘Leader’ and our greatest asset at that time is to stand up and follow.