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StrategySep 14, 2020

Leading By Following: The Importance of Followership for Organizational Success

Priya Kane

Leadership. It’s a very popular buzzword. Recruiters are always looking for someone who possesses leadership qualities, and everybody wants to be a leader. There is a strong emphasis on this concept in society, especially in times of crisis. However, many do not pay attention to the other, equally important, half of the equation: followership.

Unfortunately, not many people want to be a follower. The mindset stems from society’s viewpoint of this term; a follower is considered passive or subservient in a subordinate position. In essence, some people think followers are ‘sheep.’ This belief is especially true in Western cultures that emphasize individualism and leadership as a focus starting from childhood.

the value of good followership

Effective followership appears when individuals are proactively engaged with duties or assignments and meaningfully contribute through independent, critical thinking. Good, skilled followers are self-reliant, active participants who push forward ideas in support of a vision or in service to a cause.

These types of individuals can work successfully without strong leadership as they carry a strong sense of responsibility and motivation. Most importantly, the best followers know how to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances, a skill necessary in times of crisis. Organizations cycle through periods of triumph and struggle, and often times, the focus is on leadership. However, in order to truly thrive, all people involved must actively pay attention and think through the group’s problems. In the end, these valuable followers understand how they can contribute in their respective roles and proactively work to ensure the organization’s success.

As portrayed by this description, it should be clear that effective followers are not ‘sheep.’ Different types of followers exist, and the diagram below categorizes their traits and patterns based on two dimensions: passive versus active and dependent versus independent, critical thinking.

Adapted from “In Praise of Followers” by Robert Kelley, Harvard Business Review.

Various situations require different types of followers. For instance, active and enthusiastic followership is needed for an organization adopting new processes or technology. In this scenario, accountable individuals who adapt to change, take responsibility for their actions, and work well in teams are needed to ensure a successful transformation.

Good followers will not blindly obey a single leader’s orders; instead, they actively evaluate the situation to have a deeper understanding of a problem. They collaborate with others while also thinking critically and independently, and their high degree of motivation allows for trust in ownership of tasks. Essentially, effective followers can succeed without the presence of a great leader.

qualities of effective followers

Just as there are effective and ineffective leaders, there are effective and ineffective followers. Leadership trainings exist to help us become great leaders, but we can also learn to become more effective followers by understanding these essential qualities and skills:

1. Active participation and engagement

2. Proactive self-management

3. Independent, critical thinking

4. Adaptability

5. Trust and commitment

6. Courage and honesty

7. Acting as a team player

quality #1: active participation and engagement

Active participation involves asking questions, listening, and engaging with others in a group. It’s about speaking up when there’s confusion rather than passively allowing a topic to move on. Followers who engage with others and participate enthusiastically are more likely to prevent dysfunction by challenging a leader’s behavior when necessary. An individual can provide overall support to an organization by paying attention and speaking up even in uncomfortable circumstances.

quality #2: proactive self-management

The ability to manage one’s work and schedule demonstrates an effective follower who can succeed without an overseer. A helpful way to gain this skill is to become organized by utilizing to-do lists, Kanban boards, or other agile project management tools. After completing a task, ask yourself if there’s any follow-up needed or if you can go above and beyond a deliverable. By proactively staying updated with assignments and managing one’s duties, an individual can become a more effective follower.

quality #3: independent, critical thinking

Independent, critical thinking involves analysis of facts and information to form one’s own judgment of a situation. While collaborating with others is important (as will be noted later), individuals must spend time forming their own thoughts separately. Prior to meeting as a team, try brainstorming or evaluating the issue independently to avoid solely depending on each other for ideas. A group of effective followers who can succeed without a leader will ensure each person is thinking critically and individually about the topic at hand.

quality #4: adaptability

Organizations with adaptable followers, as well as great leaders, are best suited to survive times of crisis. This quality indicates an ability to adjust to a new environment without becoming extremely affected by circumstances, especially those out of anyone’s control. As such, if an organization experiences a transition in the face of uninvited change, stay calm and focus on the vision and goals to contribute as a helpful and composed follower.

quality #5: trust and commitment

In order for a company to foster a culture of progress, employees must have trust in the leaders and a commitment to their goals. This quality is a two-way street that businesses must encourage for effective followership to materialize. The best followers will ask the right questions to seek truth from a variety of sources in order to gain the confidence needed to work effectively in an organization. Once trust is established, people become more committed.

quality #6: courage and honesty

Having the courage to speak up honestly is a quality in individuals who keep an organization ethical. Imagine a scenario where an employee views a problem but doesn’t assume responsibility and allows the issue to go unnoticed for a period of time. This lack of honesty and courage to escalate the issue can lead to larger catastrophes, proving why it is important for effective followers to hold these qualities.

quality #7: being a team player

Teamwork is critical in this day and age with nearly every organization involving some form of group effort. A team of effective followers can collaborate with each other and show up every day with innovative ideas to support an organization’s mission and goals. Certain aspects of this quality, such as learning to disagree respectfully and building credibility in a group, are critical to learn in a world that focuses so much on collaboration.

looking forward

In order for organizations to succeed, they need effective followers just as they need effective leaders. Leadership and followership are more intertwined than we immediately think. Without followers who know how to effectively follow, organizations will struggle to make progress on projects and goals. Especially in times of crisis, strong followers adapt to changing conditions and support the group through challenges, similar to great leaders. The next time you see an emphasis on leadership during a crisis, or even in ordinary circumstances, remind yourself of the equally important need for followership.

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