FOLLOWERSHIP: THE OTHER SIDE OF LEADERSHIP
by John S. McCallum
Leadership |
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The link between leadership, management and enterprise performance is widely understood and accepted.  Improving leadership improves management and raises the probabilities of better performance.  That boards often change leaders when enterprises are slipping confirms the importance placed on leadership.

The flip side of leadership is followership.  It stands to reason that if leadership is important to performance, followership must have something to do with it too.  But curiously, followership gets only a small fraction of the airtime that leadership does.

Nowhere is this more the case than in MBA programs.  MBA programs pride themselves on their ability to teach leadership.  Leadership skills are at the head of the list of what many MBA students say they want to get out of an MBA.  To them, the better the leadership skills, the better the chances of making the executive suite.  They are right!  So enamored are MBA programs with leadership that programs actively search out evidence of leadership ability in selecting among applicants.

MBA programs loudly trumpet their leadership development prowess.  It is bizarre to even go there but has anybody ever thought of an MBA program facing the highly competitive MBA student market with the value proposition:  “Get your MBA at our university; we teach followership better than anyone else; become a better sheep at our university.”  This article is about followership.

Followership is a straightforward concept.  It is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.  It gets a bit of a bad rap!  How well the followers follow is probably just as important to enterprise success as how well the leaders lead.

The label “excellent follower” can be a backhanded compliment.  It is not a reputation you necessarily want if you are seeking higher corporate office.  There is something of a stigma to followership skills.  Pity because the practical reality is one does not reach progressively more responsible leadership positions without demonstrating an ability to follow and function effectively in a group.  The fact is that in organizations everybody is both a leader and a follower depending on the circumstances which just adds to the paradox of the followership stigma.

Followership may take the backseat to leadership but it matters:  it matters a lot!  Quite simply, where followership is a failure, not much gets done and/or what does get done is not what was supposed to get done.  Followership problems manifest themselves in a poor work ethic, bad morale, distraction from goals, unsatisfied customers, lost opportunities, high costs, product quality issues and weak competitiveness.  At the extreme, weak leadership and weak followership are two sides of the same coin and the consequence is always the same:  organizational confusion and poor performance.

Good followers have a number of qualities. 

First, judgement.  Followers must take direction but they have an underlying obligation to the enterprise to do so only when the direction is ethical and proper.  The key is having the judgement to know the difference between a directive that your leader gives on how to proceed that you do not agree with and a directive that is truly wrong.

No one disputes that good judgement is critical to being a good leader.  It is just as important in the follower.  Show enough good judgement as a follower and you usually end up getting a shot at being the leader.  Something of an aside but there is a line that I have always liked about judgement:  “Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.”

Second, work ethic.  Good followers are good workers.  They are diligent, motivated, committed, pay attention to detail and make the effort.  Leaders have a responsibility to create an environment that permits these qualities but regardless, it is the responsibility of the follower to be a good worker.  There is no such thing as a bad worker who is a good follower.

Third, competence.  The follower cannot follow properly unless competent at the task that is directed by the leader.  It is the obligation of the leader to assure that followers are competent.  Sometimes things go wrong because the follower is not competent at the task at hand.  When this happens, leaders should blame themselves, not the follower.  A sign of poor leadership is blaming followers for not having skills they do not have.

Fourth, honesty.  The follower owes the leader an honest and forthright assessment of what the leader is trying to achieve and how.  This is especially the case when the follower feels the leader’s agenda is seriously flawed.  Respect and politeness are important but that said, it is not acceptable for followers to sit on their hands while an inept leader drives the proverbial bus over the cliff.  Good leaders are grateful for constructive feedback from their team.  Bad leaders do not welcome feedback and here followers have to tread carefully.  If the situation is serious enough, consideration should be given to going above the leader in question for guidance.

Fifth, courage.  Followers need to be honest with those who lead them.  They also need the courage to be honest.  It takes real courage to confront a leader about concerns with the leader’s agenda or worse, the leader himself or herself.  It is not for naught that Churchill called courage “The foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend”.  From time to time, it takes real courage to be a good follower.

Sixth, discretion.  A favorite saying in World War II was “Loose lips sink ships.”  Sports teams are fond of the expression “What you hear here, let it stay here.”  Followers owe their enterprises and their leaders discretion.  Talking about work matters inappropriately is at best unhelpful and more likely harmful.  Discretion just means keeping your mouth shut.  It should be easy but many find it next to impossible.  Bluntly, you cannot be a good follower and be indiscreet.  Everybody who works at an enterprise has a duty of care; indiscretion is not care, it is careless.

Seventh, loyalty.  Good followers respect their obligation to be loyal to their enterprise.  Loyalty to the enterprise and its goals is particularly important when there are problems, interpersonal or otherwise, with a particular leader.  Followers who are not loyal are inevitably a source of difficulty.  They create problems between team members; they compromise the achievement of goals; they waste everybody’s time; they are a menace.  Loyalty is not a synonym for lapdog.  Rather, its essence is a strong allegiance and commitment to what the organization is trying to do.  Followers should remember that their obligation is to the enterprise, not a given leader at a given point in time.

Eighth, ego management.  Good followers have their egos under control.  They are team players in the fullest sense of the concept.  They have good interpersonal skills.  Success for good followers relates to performance and goal achievement not personal recognition and self promotion.  Sounds too good to be true and often it is.  It is difficult but the best organizations tie advancement and reward to performance and goal achievement as hard as that may be to do.

Followership will always be in the shadow of leadership.  But there are no leaders without followers and on-going success with weak followers will usually prove elusive.  It is true that an organization is only as good as its leaders.  It is also only as good as its followers.  Who would not benefit from giving some thought to how they could be a better follower?  Such thought may actually hasten your trip to the leadership position you actually want.

The Author:

John S. McCallum

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. He is a regular contributor to the Ivey Business Journal.



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