Following: The Forgotten Skill

The skill that might still be missing in your leadership toolbelt.

By Dawn Wiese

We hear about leadership development all the time. Being a leader. Qualities of an effective leader. Good leadership is undeniably important to the success of any company or organization, but what about being a good follower? What is a leader without followers, and what is a leader who doesn’t know how to follow?

The concept of followership is, perhaps, one of the most under-rated (and certainly under-talked-about) aspects of working in any organization.  An organization needs a leader, and an organization needs good followers. Otherwise, the whole thing falls apart. In the same way leadership is a developed area of management, so is followership. Followership can be developed and honed, just like any other skill. So why is it important for our organizations? 

Followership is the willingness to cooperate in working toward the accomplishment of defined goals (while demonstrating a high degree of interactive teamwork). Effective followers are active participants (partners) in creating the leadership process. Essentially, followers are what make leadership possible. Without people to follow, support, and implement goals, there is no such thing as leadership. There’s just one person espousing values over dead air. The followers make those values sing.

On the flip side, leadership can also be followership.

Consider the servant leadership movement. In servant leadership, the main goal of the leader is to serve. Their authority is derived directly from the service and support they provide to others, creating respect and loyalty with their constituents. It strikes me that the drivers behind followership are remarkably similar. Leaders who also know how to follow may build more trust and loyalty than those who never look back. When an organization has strong followers, it has a team that can take direction from a trusted leader and deliver on project objectives (which is certainly a factor in creating a productive work environment and healthy organizational culture).

Without a doubt, lack of strong followership in an organization can cause problems in:

  • poor work ethic,
  • bad morale,
  • distraction from goals,
  • unsatisfied customers/clients,
  • lost opportunities, 
  • high costs,
  • product quality issues, and
  • weak competitiveness.

You’ve likely considered the idea of leadership—maybe that’s what brought you here.  Maybe you’ve even thought that some of these organizational issues have to do with leadership challenges. What if you’re looking for a solution in the wrong place? Have you spent time thinking about followership? How are you as a “follower?”

Followership, although just as important as leadership, gets less limelight. We grow up learning how to be strong leaders and developing the skills to lead from any seat. But without strong followers, who will the leader lead? How will the work get done? Sometimes the answers to our most difficult leadership questions aren’t about leading at all—they’re about following.

For more on followership, check out:

Leadership is Half the Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership, and Collaboration

by Marc Hurwitz and Samantha Hurwitz

Servant Leadership for Higher Education

by Daniel Wheeler

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