“Rare is the leadership position that is not simultaneously a position of followership.”
— Jeffery J. Matthews from the book The Art of Command
We constantly hear about leadership in the workplace and in academia, but we rarely hear about “followership.” This overemphasis on studying leadership comes at a cost: we don’t remember to appreciate the art of being a follower. Worse, we often think of followers as those who just haven’t figured out how — or don’t have it in them — to become a leader. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of followership. To become a leader requires that one becomes a master in the roles of both follower and leader.
So what does it mean to be a great follower? In a nutshell, it’s the ability to be led. Yes, there is an art to this; it’s a craft. While a leader’s role is to set vision and define objectives, a follower’s role is to fulfill those defined objectives. Followers execute. Deliver. Fulfill. Perform. Do. They’re honest, dependable, competent, and assertive. Are you starting to understand why it would be important that a leader be good at being a follower, too?
In his book The Art of Command, Jeffery J. Matthews points out that in most organizations, leaders already inherently play the part of follower. Being effective at followership contributes to successful leadership. There is a feedback loop of success when we seek opportunities to both lead and follow. As we hone our followership skills, we become better leaders. As leadership opportunities increase, we become better followers.
For your organization to be successful, cultivate followers that operate under the same set of core values you do. If honesty is a paramount value for you, model that, and hire for that. If resilience is crucial — ditto. If excellence at every task is a key characteristic you seek in your hires, then, well, you get the picture.
How to Be an Effective Follower
“How you do anything is how you do everything.”
— Anonymous proverb
Effective followers don’t just get things done. They keep leaders on their toes and bring out their very best. They hold their leaders accountable to set a strong vision and define palpable objectives that are achievable. Effective followers are also critical thinkers, but with a positive attitude. They keep their leaders honest and are self-motivated to take action, active participants toward a communal goal but never blindly willing to accept the actions of a leader until they’ve evaluated that leader thoroughly. In many ways, great followers can achieve without a leader at all. But you can easily see how important followers are to leadership.
We challenge you right now to change your attitude toward the word follower. Instead of cringing at it, learn to honor it. It doesn’t relegate a person to subservience but is actually the other side of the leadership coin. Within each of us is the potential to be both an effective leader and a great follower. To become effective leaders, not to mention well-rounded individuals, we need to cultivate both sides of our coin.
Leaders are most effective when they have mastered both followership and leadership.