There are millions of pages read about how to be a good leader – just type both into Google and you are likely to get around 288,000,000 hits for Leadership and ‘only’ 472,000 for Followership. Moreover, from a cursory look at the topic, it seems that much of what is written is designed to inform Leaders about how they can garner better/more followers!
So, I am interested in how I can be the best follower I can be – given the leader I have (and I recognise that ‘my leader’ may change from moment to moment, task to task, environment to environment etc).
As an input to an enquiry at Roffey Park, where I am an Associate, I wrote a ramble on the topic. I repeat it below and welcome your thoughts, additions, criticisms, whatever – just say what comes into your mind as you read it…
You asked what I might like to contribute on the topic of followership. Truth is that I do not have any ‘theoretical’ inputs to offer and, as I said when I originally expressed an interest, this is one of those areas in which I have had a passing interest the many years without the opportunity to develop that interest into something more structured. Hence the willingness to participate in the group that you lead.
When I think about it, I find it extremely difficult to disentangle what it means to be a good leader from what it means to be a good follower. Perhaps this might be addressed by looking at, on the one hand, what a follower expects from their leader and, on the other, at what a leader expects of their followers. This might seem like a classic statement of the bleeding obvious but in my experience it has been rather rare to find a leader who expounds, either privately or publicly, what they expect of their followers; likewise, it is probably a very brave follower who advises their leader what they expect of them!
Whilst I might like to stay away from leadership, it is perhaps rather difficult in this context and so the following points are necessarily an incomplete expounding of my thoughts-incomplete in terms not only of the list of topics but also the explanation of that list.
Firstly, and perhaps above all, I expect a good leader to communicate effectively and I guess that puts an obligation on the followers to let of their leader know, in one way or another, when they are not being communicated with. I vividly remember a time when, in retrospect, I had the priorities of my job out of sync with the immediate needs of my staff. I was spending an increasing amount of time away from the office on strategically important stuff and came home one day to find a post-it stuck to my desk simply saying “Geoff you are no longer available”. This brought home to me more than any textbook or classroom exercise the importance of availability and communication when the followers needed it. Fortunately the relationship I had with my team was such that not only did they feel able to leave this message but they also knew that I would take it in the spirit intended.
I expect my leader to be open and honest with me, even if that occasionally means saying the equivalent of “I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that at the moment”. As a follower I must accept that there are occasions when my leader might be involved in delicate or confidential conversations which it would be inappropriate to disclose at the time. For me, the followership version of openness and honesty centres around not hiding the bad news from my leader as well as disclosing my feelings as well as thoughts about what is going on. I cannot expect them to lead effectively if they do not have the full picture.
This whole communications game has a feeling of being a dance, in which each party has to find out what the other party needs to know and passes such information along appropriately. Which brings me to another aspect of leadership and followership-communication style. As a follower I think there is an onus on me to find out not only what my leader needs to know but also how he wants to find it out. Does he want detailed written weekly reports or is he happy with a quick chat on the phone every Friday afternoon? My own style, generally discursive and flowery, caused some considerable tension between me and one of my bosses until I realised that his approach was very terse and factual-after which I changed my style and things became much easier.
Where there is a legitimate difference of opinions I expect my leader to represent that difference to other parties, rather than simply putting their own view forward. In return, I must commit as a follower to the principle of corporate responsibility and not undermine decisions taken by my own and other leaders.
The next thought that comes to mind relates to trust. As a follower I want to be left alone to get on with my own work knowing that my leader is there if necessary for help and advice. Reciprocity suggests that as a follower I must trust that my leader is doing his work on my behalf.
“I think there is an important area in followership to do with learning when to give up a particular battle. This could they simply because you recognise that the battle you are currently engaged in is simply not winnable, or it could be because of a recognition that giving up on the current battle releases resources to fight on more strategic fronts. The effective leader can guide the followers in this, but ultimately it is for each follower to make their own decision about where to put their resources.
I think I might also argue that an effective follower recognises that on occasions the boss might need help, even when the boss themselves might not have made such a recognition. I used to have a follower who was very good at taking things off me once they got past the initiation and into production phase-they did this because they knew where my strengths lay (not in production mode) and how theirs could complement me. Another aspect of this that might not be recognised very often is the loneliness of being a leader. I would not know whether to label it mentoring, coaching, counselling or what, but I am certain that an effective follower knows when their boss needs some form of support and is prepared and able to offer that support.
A good follower knows and respects the leader’s short, medium and long-term priorities and does not pester them with issues outside that envelope unless the follower can demonstrate the strategic importance of their issue.”