"I am reminded how hollow the label of leadership sometimes is and how heroic followership can be." ~Warren Bennis
“He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.” ~Aristotle
We hear a lot about how to be a great leader you need to be a good follower, but why is that exactly? I mean, you’re naturally going to learn from your superior, but that isn’t necessarily followership. Of course, almost every leader reports to another leader in the organization (or stockholders) so we are all followers in some respect. And yes, you will learn how to execute the vision of your leader so you will know how to set an achievable vision for your team when you are a leader. But other than those areas, it would seem that the two roles are very different.
Well they aren’t as different as you might think on the surface. If you look at the two roles in a broader perspective there are some key aspects of followership that relate directly to high performing leadership.
Serving – As a follower you serve the needs of your leader and the vision they set forth. As a leader, you serve your team so that they can more easily achieve the vision you have set forth. Your team needs tools, skills, plans, and resources to be at their best. Your leader needs information and work to be done. While how you serve is different, the fact is that in both roles a spirit of service will see you excel.
Collaboration – We don’t always think of leaders as part of a team, but they almost always have peers and are often playing a dual role with their own team of coach as well as quarterback. Teamwork and collaboration are the best ways to excel as a follower, but they are essential in a leadership role where you need to work through your team to accomplish your goals. Leaders can’t do all of the work themselves, so the collaborative skills they learned as part of a team when they were a follower are essential in leadership.
Anticipation – Ever worked with someone that was almost clairvoyant with how well they knew what the boss was going to want/need next? Great followers anticipate the questions that their leader will ask, the information they need, and the work they need done. This is the proving ground for being able to anticipate other things when you become a leader like project obstacles, consumer behavior, organizational risks, etc. Great leaders and organizations anticipate better than others and you get practice throughout your entire career in one way or the other.
Humility – Whether you are a leader or a follower you serve something larger than yourself and need to act accordingly. I am frightened when I see one of my followers act without humility, because I can only imagine what might happen if they were to have their behavior validated by getting a leadership position. Leaders without humility can be found all over and they rarely get long term results without creating just as many problems as they solve.
Loyalty – Great followers are loyal to their leader, and similarly, great leaders are loyal to their team. This gets at caring for those who take care of us. What so many leaders miss is that their team takes care of them by producing the results that the leader is held accountable for. You learn and demonstrate this caring first in your role as a follower and then adjust it in your role as a leader.
As you can see, the traits of a great follower are traits that exceptional leaders have as well, the only thing that changes is perspective. So think about what made you a great follower before you became a leader and what makes you a great follower to your leader now (again, we almost all have a boss). Nurturing these things will continue to serve us well as we grow in our careers.
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