There are so many articles about leadership, yet no leader will be successful unless they have noble and competent followers. I believe that followership should be placed on the same pedestal as leadership.
Followership has become side-lined in favour of leadership. It is not surprising either. Leadership is aspirational. It’s seen to be a position that a select few people will assume because there are limited positions available. However, if you’re a leader or follower, your roles of leadership and followership will be interchangeable throughout your life. Because even as a leader, there are times when you must step back and follow your team. As a follower, there are times when you must take the lead especially with projects where you have specialised knowledge or skills.
Therefore, we cannot explore leadership at the exclusion of followership. At whatever stage you are in your life, you will always simultaneously or interchangeably assume both roles.
I’ve always been fascinated with leadership, because as far back as I can remember, I’ve always assumed leadership roles from class monitor to head girl at my primary school, member of the student body for three consecutive years at my high school, and being offered senior PR roles, leading my own team as a senior manager and leading my own company. In these leadership roles, there have been many occasions when I had to follow and that’s why most recently I have become fascinated with the term followership. How do you become a good follower?
In this article I am going to discuss the virtue of followership and the qualities you need to be a good follower.
1. A good follower is respectful
It can be difficult to follow someone especially when you believe that you deserve the leadership role that your colleague has been granted. It could be that you’re experiencing feelings of jealousy or resentment. Alternatively, it could be a situation where you are much older than your leader. You go into comparison mode. Society has created general benchmarks that result in people experiencing feelings of inadequacy in their life and career. For example, by age 23 you must have an undergraduate degree, by 28 be married with children, by 30 you must have your own house and car or business. We tend to compare our lives with these general and often unrealistic benchmarks of success. Especially in South Africa, due to inequality, very few people can meet these benchmarks. To be a good follower forget about these unrealistic standards. Become realistic about where you are and the unique challenges you have faced and appreciate and celebrate where you are now. Get to know your leader, and as hard as it may be, try to look for reasons why they have been selected for their role. Do they have good people skills, do they negotiate well, are they problem solvers? Instead of comparing your life to theirs based on an unrealistic set of general benchmarks, respect them for where they are right now in their journey and respect yourself for where you are. Respect costs nothing. You should not need a specific reason to respect someone. If you respect your leader, they will notice it and if they are a good leader, they most certainly will take you with them on their journey, perhaps through opening new doors for you.
2. A good follower is eager to learn
Ask yourself does your leader know some things you don’t. Your leader meets with a different set of people in different places, people you’ve never met and placed you’ve never been, and because of this, they have a different perspective and understanding. Ask questions, ask for feedback on your work, ask to take the lead on projects, suggest ways to improve processes or projects. Learn as much as you can. Your leader has a wealth of knowledge. They can teach you about the road ahead, about mistakes they made and one day when you assume a leadership role, you will be able to identify those pitfalls ahead of time because you learned something new.
3. A good follower is supportive
Everyone wants the perks that come with a leadership position, but no one takes the time to ask what are the major challenges that leaders face. It may seem like your leader is living it up, they no longer do the hard labour that you are currently doing, and their job entails coffee sessions and lunches at fancy restaurants. It may look glamorous, but just because their work does not include getting their hands dirty, it does not mean that their job is easy. It’s just a different kind of labour. As a leader, you are often placed in difficult positions, with tough negotiators, and those coffee sessions and lunches that look glamorous can be challenging as leaders have to talk their way out of difficult situations, it’s a new level of hard work. They often fight battles behind closed doors, sometimes on your behalf, that you will never hear about because they can’t tell you about it. As a follower, you need to fulfil the support role for your leader. It could be as simple as rescheduling an appointment if your manager's diary is too full for that week, taking a call when your manager is busy preparing for that big presentation. It might seem like a small task, but it won’t go unnoticed by a good leader.
4. A good follower is competent
Leaders are there to lead. As soon as leaders become too involved in the implementation of a project, everyone in the team starts losing sight of the goal. That’s because the leader’s role is not to implement the plan, the leader’s role is to create the plan and then get the right people in the room to implement the plan. If you’re in that room, you must make sure that you’re adding value. As soon as the leader must start doing the job that you’re employed to do, because you’re not delivering, then you’re not a good follower. You must be competent in your role to be a good follower. Competence requires discipline to manage your workload and day, an eagerness to learn new things to help you reach the goal, and the self-motivation to succeed and to keep working towards the goal.
5. A good follower is disciplined
A good follower keeps their eye on the goal and works hard at achieving it. If you’re lucky enough to have a leader that shares their vision with you, then you need to be disciplined enough to do what is necessary to achieve that vision. When a good leader sees a follower working with them to achieve that vision, they will reward it in any way possible, because they want to motivate and encourage others to follow suit. Discipline means doing what is required and asked of you to do at the time that it is required.
6. A good follower is empathetic
Try to understand the unique challenges that your leader is facing, put yourself in your leader’s shoes. What can you do to relieve your leader from some of their challenges? Most of the time, all you need to do is your job. When you do your job without being asked or reminded, you’re allowing your leader to focus on the big picture. Be empathetic. If your leader must remind you daily or weekly about doing something that is listed in your job description and that is discussed during weekly meetings, then you’re taking their attention away from what they need to do. Instead of relieving them of their challenges, you are adding to their challenges. Be the one who provides solutions and be known as the one who gets things done. This way you’re empathetic to the never-ending list of tasks the leader must complete.
The qualities required to be a good follower is very similar to the qualities required to be a good leader. We all start out following someone. A two-year-old has no idea from right or wrong so they mimic the actions of their parents or elder siblings to learn how things must be done. We’ve all been two years old multiple times in our lives every time we start something new. If you’re a follower right now and you’re tired of following, my advice to you is to become present where you find yourself right now. Be honest with yourself. Have you learnt everything you need to learn from the role you currently fill? Have you asked the right questions? Have you been the best follower you can be; respectful, teachable, supportive, competent, disciplined and empathetic? Until you’ve been a good follower, you will never be a good leader. Master where you are now until no one can irrefutably deny that you’re a pretty great human being because once you become a great human being, that’s when you’re ready for leadership.