The Side Of Leadership We Don’t Talk About: Followership
When is the last time you said to yourself or others “I want to be a great follower”?
If you’re like many people in Western cultures, your answer is most likely “never”. In fact, you’ve probably always replaced the word “follower” in the sentence above, saying “I want to be a great leader,” instead. This is due largely to the way our culture values individualism. We are taught to strive to be independent, self-sufficient, and autonomous. We’re taught to be leaders – not followers.
What we often forget is that people aren’t leaders or followers. They’re leaders because they’ve been followers. Every great leader was once a great follower.
In our society, we’ve created a false dichotomy between leadership and followership. We’ve historically been taught that leaders are the people who take charge, who make decisions, and who are ultimately independent. They are seen as people who embody our individualistic ideals. Followers, on the other hand, are viewed in our culture nothing more than “sheep” who engage in unquestioned obedience and passivity. They’re seen as the antithesis of our Western cultural values.
This mindset over-glorifies leadership and gives followership a bad rap. Historic perspectives on followership have viewed it as being devoid of autonomy, individuality, and independence. The Harvard Business Review offers a more apt description (1). It argues that the most efficient follower is someone who is active in their role and thinks independently. According to this definition, followers take action quickly, are enthusiastic, intelligent, motivated, and are self-starters.
Followers are not “sheep”; they are leaders in training. They exhibit many of the same skills as leaders do, because they are using their followership to develop those attributes. Followership and leadership are intricately interconnected with one another. Rather than existing as opposites, each one relies on the other, and both share the same the same organizational mission and goals of learning and development.
Followership is preparation for leadership, not the opposite of it.
The Impact of Followership
Followership is an important stepping stone in the path towards leadership, as it helps build and develop essential qualities necessary for great leadership. Every great leader was once a follower (and still is in some sort of capacity, depending on their level in the leadership pipeline). As followers, leaders begin to acquire the experience and skills necessary to succeed in the future. It fosters learning, growth, and development vital for good leadership.
Like leadership, followership is also is vital to the overall success of an organization. When followership goes awry, the entire functioning of an organization and its outcomes risk negative repercussions such as loss in sales, production, decrease in productivity, turnover, etc. Without its followers, an organization cannot (and arguably will not) survive.
Learning To Lead
As we move forward in search of new and innovative ways to better ourselves and our organizations, we must re-frame how we view followership. We’ve built several negative connotations that tell us followership is anti-leadership – that it’s devoid of autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency. These are dangerous beliefs to hold. Followership is perhaps one of the most important skill-sets someone can learn. It’s our preparation for leadership. It’s a practicing ground where we learn how to take responsibility, execute decisions, and create change. Rather than avoiding being a follower, we all need to embrace it. Because despite what we’ve learned to tell ourselves, the best leaders learned to lead through followership.
COVID has changed the landscape of leadership and followership alike in its wake. Learn about The Need From Compassionate Leadership to continue your leadership development.
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