...We Choose to Follow”
Earlier this month, I read the title quote in a post by Laurence Barrett from my LinkedIn network. His posts always get me thinking and this particular sentence got me thinking about an important topic that routinely gets little airtime yet is extremely important in the leadership development universe. When we ask leaders if they can truly be a leader if no one follows them, the obvious answer is no. Yet the topic of followership continues to lag in the leadership discussion.
In the Leadership and Organizational Behavior class I teach in a local MBA program, we introduce the relationship between the leader, the followers, and the situation. One of the exercises we discuss is the idea of creating a course on followship and the key topics we would need to cover in such a course. After creating an exhaustive list of topics, I change the title from followership to leadership and then ask the class to identify additional topics required for effective leadership. Surprisingly, very few new topics get added. This exercise helps drive home the importance of followership relative to effective leadership.
We define followership as the attitudes, skills and behaviors that complement leadership in achievement of the team’s success. The real question is how we apply this definition to the success of the team in the context of our actual work. In our experience, both as a business leader and leadership coach, we’ve identified three key areas of followership that are most relevant, especially in the new reality of the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) business environment we currently operate in. Let’s explore each in more detail:
- Understand the Bigger Picture ~ A lesson I still remember from my military training was ensuring everyone understood the full scope of the mission. That way, if the leader was somehow taken out of action, the mission could continue because the entire team was read in. The same holds true as a followership attitude. The extent to which followers fully understand the prevailing trends in their industry, their markets as well as the strategy of their own organization, is the extent to which they will be effective followers. Their effectiveness lies in the ability to follow in the context of their Vision and Mission. This context is especially true for those followers who are also leaders (think middle management) in the sense their own followership enhances their leadership!
- Be a Team Player ~ Leadership is a team sport. In spite of the obvious, far too much leadership development still focuses on individual characteristics of the leader versus the leader’s ability to achieve desired results through others. We wonder aloud if ineffective leaders ever developed the followership attitudes and behaviors of a team player before they stepped into the leadership seat. When we work with leaders and followers in this area, we focus on the five “functions” of a team as the opposite of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team made popular in his book by the same name. Being Trustworthy, Managing Conflict, being Committed to the Mission, being Accountable and having a Results Orientation are all indicators of the followership attitudes and behaviors to be an effective team player!
- Accountability to Yourself to Stay Relevant ~ Being an effective follower has an individual development element to it. In a VUCA business environment, what it means to be relevant is a moving target. Therefore, followership is about owning one’s self-development around effective communications, critical thinking and collaboration to name but a few. It extends beyond merely “doing my job” to “what elements of my job do I need to develop in order to stay relevant to the organization”. Actively engaging in these attitudes, skills and behaviors helps create an effective team of followers who focus on achieving desired results!
Followers have more power than sometimes even they realize. (remember, without them there is no leadership). As numerous MBA classes have come to realize through the exercise mentioned earlier, to leverage that power effectively requires attitudes, skills and behaviors that are nearly identical to that of the leader. When followership and leadership align to the mission, achieving desired results will lead to sustainable success!
How does your team’s followership align with your leadership and how do you know? If you don't know, we can help!