4 reasons followership is just as important as leadership

Everybody wants to be a leader, and why not? We live in a society where – especially in the Western culture – being a leader is looked upon as the ultimate success.

But what about being a good follower?

Barbara Kellerman, one of the world’s leading academics on leadership, explains the leadership system as the intersection between leaders, followers, and context.

Why is it that we all want to be leaders, but we shy away from being good followers?

Does your company really need 10 people aspiring to be CEO, working against each other in the race to the top? Can you see the value in 10 dedicated followers keeping the leader accountable and focused?

As a leader, you should pay attention to followers: why they follow you, and why they do not. They might not have power, but never underestimate their influence in a company.

Being a good follower does not imply blind loyalty. On the contrary, Kellerman distinguishes between different types of followers, which she describes in her book “Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders.”

Do you recognise any of these followers in your team? And why should you care about them?

  • Isolates refuse to engage. Be very wary of this type of follower. There is a direct link between staff engagement and productivity and profitability, according to a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

  • Bystanders consciously remain neutral on decision making. As a leader, you may think they are very supportive, but their choice not to question anything can have disastrous consequences. They will not only be bystanders if you do the right thing, they won’t question you if you are leading them down the wrong path.

  • Participants will do what you ask them to do, but in a non-critical way and highly aware of their peers. They play as a group. As individuals, they will not challenge any of your decisions.

  • Activists, according to Kellerman, are the passionate followers leaders must engage. “They are powerful allies when the organisation is heading in the right direction, but can ‘unseat’ the leader when it isn’t.”

  • Diehards commit fully and make personal sacrifices for the organisation. Kellerman says they are more common in the military than in business.

Do you recognise yourself? You should, even though you see yourself as a leader.

In any organisational structure, you are not only leading, but also following. Ira Chaleff explored this in his book “The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders.” According to Chaleff, “to be effective at almost every level of an organisation, individuals need to play both the leader and follower role adeptly.”

Chaleff is also the co-writer of “The Art of Followership,” a book that focuses on the role followers play in “setting the standards and formulating the culture and policies of the group.”

With the huge emphasis on leadership, it is important to note that not everyone wants to be a leader, as noted in an article by David Van Rooy.

Here are four reasons why media leaders should be activist followers and care about their activist followers:

  1. It cultivates an environment of critical thinking, focused on a common vision, not an individual.

  2. It makes difficult discussions possible, and enables people to speak up without fear.

  3. It creates a culture of accountability and mutual respect.

  4. It makes business sense.

About Johanna van Eeden

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