It’s guest post Monday! This post is written by Chris Bailey, a recent management school graduate. After he graduated in May, Chris was offered two full-time jobs, both of which he declined, to start A Year of Productivity. Two of his recent productivity experiments for the project: Only using his smartphone for 60 minutes a day (for 3 months), and meditating for 35 hours over one week.
Followership is not a sexy topic. It wasn’t even included in my computer’s spell-check dictionary! But when you really think about it, no one can be a leader all of the time.
Why we should become better followers
I took countless courses on leadership as part of my management degree, have personally read many books on leadership, and try incredibly hard to cultivate qualities in myself that make me into a better leader. Here’s the thing, though – research has shown that the average employee spends more time acting as a follower than a leader.
According to Carnegie Mellon professor Robert Kelley, “the reality is that most of us are more often followers than leaders. Even when we have subordinates, we still have bosses. For every committee we chair, we sit as a member on several others.” (Emphasis mine.)
I personally can’t think of a single effective leader that was not also a follower at the same time. Even Steve Jobs, who I think is a rebel and a great leader in a lot of respects, had to be a follower to his board of directors, shareholders, and in a way, his customers. (And not to mention his wife when he got home!)
Developing qualities that shape us into great leaders is important, but when most of us act as followers more often than we act as leaders, I’d argue that being an effective follower is just as important.
Actively trying to become a better follower first of all allows us to perform when we’re not able to lead. There are simply certain situations where it’s better to be a good, active follower than a good leader, like when we’re on the phone with our CEO. Becoming a better follower will also make you into a better leader. In my opinion, most of the qualities that effective followers have are the same ones found in effective leaders (they’re listed in the section below). Third, understanding what it takes to become a better follower helps us recognize and cultivate those qualities in other people. This is incredibly helpful when you’re doing anything from hiring a new employee, to cultivating positive qualities in the people you already lead.
What makes a good follower?
What makes you a good follower isn’t that you’ll blindly follow what other people say.
In his book Leadership, James Burns made an important distinction between two types of followers; that some are active, and some are passive. While passive followers give “undiscriminating support”, active followers don’t. Active followers are enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant. They don’t blindly follow orders; they participate and shape the direction of their work to get even better results.
In his research, Robert Kelley went a step further and described a bunch of qualities active followers have. According to his work, active followers are:
• Self-managing, meaning they can think critically and control their actions;
• Committed, meaning they’re committed to the mission of the team they’re on;
• Competent, meaning they have enough skills to act by themselves and complete their job well;
• Courageous, meaning they stand up for their beliefs, even when they go against those of their boss
The word ‘follower’ gets a bad rap, but it’s nothing more than a role that you play, especially while you play the role of a leader. As Kelley put it, “effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts at different hours of the day”. Regardless of how many followers we have (or will have), developing good followership qualities is worth it.
It may even make you into a better leader in the end.
Questions: How are you practicing followership? How can becoming a follower better help your leadership?