Kaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education Kaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education

How the Most Effective Leaders Master the Art of Followership

Business professionals working together

Posted By: Asha Bianca
Published: October 12, 2017

Unless you own your business and work completely by yourself, followership is a critical leadership skill. Yes, I said followership is a leadership skill. 

Knowing how and when to follow is as important as knowing how and when to lead. I might argue it's even more important in certain situations. The way you present yourself on teams speaks volumes about how you expect teams to react to your leadership.

The challenge with followership, as compared to leadership, is that it isn’t recognized as critical in the business world. But it is every bit as important as leadership. Being an effective follower is as essential to a plan’s success as any other factor. Let’s break this down a bit further. As a leader in an organization, your involvement as a lead in different initiatives ebbs and flows. You aren’t always the person who is calling the shots. In fact, if your organization is healthy, there will be a high level of collaboration involved up, down, and across the managerial line. Sometimes you wear the hat of a leader, and sometimes the follower hat is the right one to wear. It is of very high importance, and you need to be highly tuned into it.

When trying to advocate for followership in corporate leadership, there’s a major obstacle to overcome: credit. If a project goes particularly well, the leader of the project is usually the primary recipient of the credit for success. For a natural leader who has become attached to credit as a form of validation, it can be difficult to participate in a project without receiving the credit for their participation, whether they admit it or not. If you find yourself in this mindset, here’s how you overcome it. Move on and be confident in yourself enough to know that you, as a follower, on whichever project was successful, played a key role in that success. The role you played was clarifying questions, supporting the leader's and team’s success, keeping to the vision, following direction, and holding yourself and others accountable.We know in today’s world, particularly in large organizations, it takes a strong team to achieve success. This is true regardless of how strong a leader is. To quote a colleague, “It's teamwork that makes the dream work.”

Now that we dealt with that challenge, let’s look at some of the realities of working in a mid- to large-size company. You have a boss, that boss has a boss, and so on. Regardless of how many credentials, letters, and degrees are at the end of your title, even you have a responsibility to be a follower. This is something to be proud of, excel at, and develop every single day.

Followership is a concept that doesn’t get as much airplay as leadership. For every 9 people on a 10-person team, there is 1 identified as a leader. That 1 person is no more important than the other 9. They just have a different role. We, as leaders, need to lift up the role of follower and see it for the gem that it is. Following well begets to success as much as leading well does.

I’d like to address another key challenge: you may not agree with your boss, or your boss’s boss. As long as it isn’t an ethical issue, and you’ve had your time to present your argument, there is a time to take pride in your ability to carry out an order...an order that you may not fully agree with. Knowing your role in a particular phase and honing this understanding over time is an essential development practice.

Being true to your leadership self involves being an exceptional follower. Don’t short change yourself or your team by missing this fact. We can accomplish so much more when we think less about who gets the credit. Instead, put that energy into what success looks like and how to get there together as a team.

Following are some key followership takeaways:

  1. Followership is critically important. As a leader, it's important that you carry the followership torch, especially when you are seen as a leader in the organization. Make sure that you are recognizing the whole team when you are in a leadership position and supporting with 100% engagement in a followership position.
     
  2. Team’s win together and lose together. Your participation as a team player is fundamental. Again, unless you work only with and for yourself, you are going to be in various roles throughout your career. Your reputation as a follower or solid team player is trusted and is going to influence your success in the projects you lead more than any other factor.
     
  3. Courageous integrity is required. Being good at followership takes courage. It takes being real and honest about concerns and channeling concerns appropriately in a respectful, productive dialogue. Finally you must put them to rest, trusting and moving on. This engagement requires a high level of courageous integrity.