Everyone wants to be a leader, but here’s why you must also be a follower

When studying leadership, most of what you will find are the characteristics of the leader. Things like: courageous, compelling, accountable, trustworthy, etc. We think this misses the mark because in reality, the characteristics of leaders vary widely depending on a multitude of factors. Leadership in the military looks different than leadership in the office. Leadership in politics looks different than community leadership. Do not even get me started on leadership “skills” – they vary just as much as characteristics. 

So, what makes a leader, a leader? The single most distinguishing mark of a leader is that they have outstanding followers.  

Before we go any further, it is important to state that there is nothing ‘less than’ being a follower. If you want to be an effective leader you have to: 

  1. Accept that you are a leader in some contexts and a follower in others. 
  1. Understand the mindset of the follower. 

A. Acceptance 

Which of these are leaders? Which are followers? 

  • Manager of a team of 5 
  • Co-founder of a startup 
  • Program manager at a tech company 
  • Executive coach for small businesses 
  • Stay at home Dad 
  • Director of People Operations 
  • Assistant football coach 
  • Journeyman electrician 
  • Recent college grad in her first job 

The first answer is, it depends. The second answer is all of them are leaders and all of them are followers.  

Let us take a closer look at the co-founder of startup. Yes, he may have the title of a typical leader, but does he have followers within the company? In this case, he just happened to be the one who could make the other co-founders vision come to life. He was a follower. As they began to make traction, it was discovered that he was not very sociable and had no desire to manage a team of developers. So, they hired someone else to manage this team of which he became a member of. Again, a follower in the situation. 

Okay, how about the recent college grad in her first job? Did I mention she was the captain of the lacrosse team? The volunteer coordinator at a local non-profit? Running a YouTube channel with 5K subscribers on how to build a successful ecommerce business? Sure, she is just entering her first job as a follower, but in these other contexts, she is a leader because she has followers.  

So, it is a matter of where, not if. We are both a leader and a follower. The question to ask yourself is, what is needed for your particular situation?  

For example, if we look at the program manager at a tech company who was hired to help facilitate the existing projects. They may not have had many followers, until the company decided to launch a new program. Now, there is an opportunity to step more into leadership and generate outstanding followers because the situation calls for it.   

B. Followership 

83% of companies say developing leaders is crucial, but 69% of Millennials are concerned that their workplace does not develop their leadership skills (Apollo Technical). 

These statistics seem to conflict, do they not? 

We hear about leadership all the time, but rarely hear about followership. You cannot have great leaders without outstanding followers. For whatever reason, the latter has a negative stigma associated with it. Most people would take, “you are such a great follower” as a slap in the face (even though it is not).  

Being a great leader has little to do with you and more to do with the people that follow. Without followers, there is no leadership. Let that sink in. So, if you want to be effective and well-rounded you must learn how to be and do both: leadership and followership. 

So, what is followership? “Simply put, it is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you” (Ivey Business Journal). It is a particular set of skills that complement the skills of a leader. Within a company, followers play important individual, relational, and collective roles in failures and successes. 

As you desire to develop as a leader, remember to embrace followership. The more you do, the better you will be able to lead followers because you understand what it means to follow. What do you as a follower want? What support do you need in order to be successful? What helps you get unstuck so you can perform at your best? What inspires you to deliver what is expected of you? Your answers to these questions will help you understand the mindset of a follower so that you can be a more effective leader. 

Conclusion 

Focusing on leadership alone misses the mark of what it means to be a leader because without followers, there are no leaders. Followership is a prerequisite to leadership. Work out both muscles if you want to perform at your best.  

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