Why every Great Leader is also a Great Follower

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?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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32 thoughts on “Why every Great Leader is also a Great Follower

  1. Chris, thank you! It’s so great to see how you make the connection between being a follower and being a leader. It seems like too many leaders want to just strike out on their own as a solitary leader who needs no one else. The truth is all leaders must follow someone or something. For me, following Jesus is my primary source of everything, including strength and courage to be a leader.

    • Thanks! That’s a huge point, I think – how becoming a better follower can make you a better leader, especially when it provides you with a purpose and motivation :) Happy to hear that you found a great one!

  2. You are right when you say being a “follower” gets a bad rap. It seems everyone wants to lead and no one gives much thought to following. The reality is, we will play both roles depending on the hat we are wearing in our lives. We need to be the type of follower we want those we lead to be. Or better yet…. we will attracted the type of followers that we are. So be mindful how you follow!

    • So true! Thinking about it now, some of the best bosses I’ve had have religiously followed the employees they had on their team. They ran interference so we could do our work without worrying about administrative stuff, asked if there was anything they could do to make our work easier, that sort of thing. And each boss I’ve had that was like that attracted people who we like themselves for their team; people who were willing to go out of their way to help one another as well :)

  3. Chris makes a great point about based on some solid research about the difference between active and passive followership. Leaders fear that being a follower means being a passive follower! But leaders need active followers to share in the workload and get things done as well as to challenge ideas to formulate best practices and approaches. I would caution those leaders-as-followers to be sure they’re contributing for the good of the project and to support the leader more than to build their own influence and stage a coup!

    • Thanks! And absolutely. I think when 99% of people think of being a follower, their mind imagines themselves blindly following what someone else is saying, without having a spine to stick up for what they think is right.

  4. Excellent post. The ingredient of humility is a gift that gives longer and will take us abundantly higher. Ego is poison that kills the ride half way up to our potential. To follow is to care, if we don’t care we’ve failed regardless the number.

  5. I agree with the idea that no one is always a leader and no one is always a follower. It is circumstantial. (I’m not sure I agree Steve Jobs followed his Board, but that’s an opinion.) I love the image you chose because each goose takes a turn. All of us have the opportunity and responsibility to both lead and then to follow well. Great post, Chris.

  6. This is a topic I have thought about often. In fact, I have thought about delving into more perhaps in book form. I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself a leader, but I think it’s because of what I look at as a typical leader. Also, my pastor often says that we lead by serving. In my mind, that’s another aspect of leading by following. I have saved your post for future reference, whether for a post of my own or a book at some point. I just feel like I’m called to be an example of a follower in so many ways and that my life reflects that role. Though, I also believe that following is a type of leading. Good insights!

    • I think you should write a book on this topic, I think it’s needed. Serving and setting the example are two key elements when it comes to being a good follower. Thank you for reading and sharing.

      • My biggest challenge in writing a book on this topic is confidence. I don’t feel like I’ve done a great job being a follower. I am such a loner and tend to do my own thing much of the time, at least in recent years. I have a lot of thoughts on the topic, but my fear is that my living doesn’t line up with it well enough. There are a lot of good scripture examples though.

        • Maybe writing about your own story/struggles with being a good follower would be good, then provide some practical points on how anyone can become a better follower. I think a lot of people would relate with you.

          • I believe you just gave me a basic outline/structure for a book on being a good follower. It’s a topic I need to commit to more prayer. It’s certainly been coming to mind a lot, which tells me the Holy Spirit is trying to get my attention. Then, you bring it up, so maybe I need to devote more consideration to it. Thanks for the encouragement!

            • Nice! Ever since you’ve mentioned something about writing a book on being a follower (I think it was a month or so ago) I’ve been thinking about that topic and the need for it. Your the perfect person to write the book. If you want me can chat over the phone more about this topic.

  7. During my time as a cadet at The Citadel, I learned a tremendous amount about this follower-leader relationship.

    I think learning to “submit” was key. I don’t mean blind submission. I mean learning to be coachable and have respect for superiors, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye.

    Your time as a follower helps mold you into the leader that you will ultimately become.

    Great post.

  8. before my husband and I moved continents two years ago we were in leadership roles for a long time. currently we are doing a lot more following than leading. i agree with you, it’s hard to lead others when you haven’t walked in their shoes. you can try of course, many people do. But when you cultivate ‘following’ habits, your leadership moves to the next level.

    • My wife and myself have a similar story/experience. It’s important to be able to do both. I totally agree about a persons leadership moving to the next level when they can be a good follower. Thank you for reading and sharing.

    • So true. I think it’s when you fall into the trap of thinking you can be a leader in every situation that you can get into trouble! Taking the time to see things from a follower’s perspective can really change the way you look at people.

  9. We cannot lead where we are not prepared to follow; we cannot follow if we do not trust our leader – that is a part of the active follower’s make up as well. Allegiance is not something given blindly, as Larry notes.

    Good post.