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Understanding the Value of Followership

While everyone seems to want to be a great business leader, it’s easy to lose sight of why followership is equally important.

While everyone seems to want to be a great business leader, it’s easy to lose sight of why followership is equally important.

By Tim McEwan, Managing Director, SH Leadership and Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant

The business world is obsessed with leadership, but “followership” is just as important, if not more so. Google the term “leadership” or search for books on the topic on Amazon, and you’ll get tens of thousands of results. Try the same for “followership” – you’ll struggle to find many books or articles on the subject.

No one goes to Harvard to learn how to follow. Nor can you find many courses extolling its virtues. Yet knowing how to be a good follower is vital to getting things done. Not only do you as a leader need to know how to encourage positive followership behaviours in your team; you also often need to be an effective follower yourself.

Take the example of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. This is the British army’s leadership centre of excellence. The chapel at the academy is in many ways the spiritual home of military leadership in Britain. Yet when you leave the chapel, you are confronted with a memorial to all the other ranks of British soldiers who fell – and continue to fall – in various conflicts. This is a stark reminder to the army’s future leaders in training that without all these followers  doing brilliant work in the pursuit of achieving the mission , you cannot be a leader.

Indeed, all branches of the British military – and certainly the army and marines, in which your authors served in the past – inculcate the idea that your followers make you a leader. That you cannot be an effective leader without effective followers. Understanding that the role of an officer is to serve your troops lies at the heart of the way the military teaches and practices leadership.

Now, apply this concept to leadership within business. We may all seek leadership, but it is actually followership that dominates our working lives. Even as leaders, we follow as often – if not more often – than we lead.

What is followership and why is it important?

It’s useful to define what we mean by followership. In brief, it is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a programme or project, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.

Its importance should be fairly obvious. Without the ability to take direction and deliver on a project, that project will fail. However, what is even more important than the obvious skills required is the mindset and behaviour.

Effective followership vs ineffective followership

Indeed, the ability to switch roles, to change priorities, to offer support, that could be said to define effective followership. This is what people in high performing teams do – they’re typically able to switch between roles very easily.

Despite followership never receiving the same attention as leadership, the difference between effective and ineffective followership behaviours was codified as far back as 1988, in a seminal article in the Harvard Business Review on the subject by Robert Kelley.

In this piece, Kelley set out the difference between effective and ineffective followership behaviours in the following way:

  • Ineffective followership behaviours

This often takes the form of team members sitting around waiting to be told what to do, refusing to take the initiative.

Going a step further, it could manifest as what Kelley calls “survivor” behaviour, which is when you’re perfectly capable and have a good brain but have chosen to switch yourself off to just get through the day and do the bare minimum.

Perhaps the worst of the ineffective behaviours is when you are angry and complaining vocally, not caring who knows how you feel. This behaviour can become subversive and start to sow dissent.

  • Effective followership behaviours

Effective behaviours, by contrast, include:

  • The ability to think for themselves
  • Asking forgiveness not permission
  • Willingness to take a degree of risk
  • Ability to use their own judgement
  • Being comfortable putting their hand up and saying when they don’t know something
  • Being capable to operate independently
  • Hunger to expand their level of competence

That last point is important, because effective followers often strive to increase their competence – to stretch themselves, learn more, and develop by asking for more challenging tasks, or for mentorship.

How do we create a culture where effective followership behaviour thrives in a hybrid working world?

Leadership plays a key role in nurturing effective followership. If you create the conditions for effective followership to thrive, through your leadership, then it will thrive. If you create the conditions for alienation or survivorship, then those behaviours will thrive. It’s up to you what you create.

With the rise of new ways of working – hybrid working in particular – your leadership plays a more important role then ever. People have a choice about how hard they work. They have a choice about what they spend time on and what they prioritise.

Discretionary effort is ultimately what it’s all about. Your effective followers are really comfortable providing you discretionary effort. They’re also really comfortable turning around and telling you when they’re maxed out or in danger of burn out. You can trust them in this context, because they’ve got a good track record of being honest, trustworthy, reliable individuals who tell you the truth. If they say they’re maxed out, then the chances are, they’re maxed out.

Of course, if you care about your team member, you will be receptive to the signs of overwork and potential burn out. If you notice that they are working through weekends or sending emails at 5.30am and at 9.30pm, it’s time to talk to them about creating a better work-life balance. It’s time to see how you can support them.

In short, you need to care about your people. To support them. To listen to them. To respond when they come to you with challenges. Do this, and you will foster a relationship based on trust. They will repay in kind with increased productivity and discretionary effort.

Here we’ve gone full circle back to the importance of good leadership. You get the followership that your leadership style deserves: it doesn’t just happen. Remember the earlier point about Sandhurst: that good leaders serve their followers. As a leader, you are there to provide your people with everything they need to do the job for you. Everything from equipment and tools right down to motivation and purpose: a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

If you give all your people all the things they need to be brilliant, then you’ll get effective followership. Without this, no leader can succeed. With it, no leader can fail.  

For more information about our Leadership Advisory Services, please contact Tim McEwan.