What sort of a follower are you? | Jackie Crispin Brown
jackie crispin brown

I am a leadership developer, and absolutely understand the impact of leadership.  I constantly hold leaders to account to be the most authentic and effective they can be. Given that relationship is fundamental to leadership, I’m amazed how little we explore the follower aspect.  Leader and follower are intertwined in the act of leadership.

So, what sort of a follower are you?

This is not a question we often ask ourselves because the spotlight is usually on leaders.  We certainly don’t do ‘follower assessments’. Our focus on leaders is so strong we lay the full responsibility of outcome on them.

When followers don’t deliver, despite the leader’s best efforts, we look at the leader, not the follower.

Through my research into the development of authentic leaders “When fake is so fashionable, can we really grow authentic leaders?”(2018) https://www.jackiecrispinbrown.com/category/writing-research/research/

I had the pleasure of interviewing a senior public service leader. I’ll call her Joy. Joy saw herself as integral to the success of her leader.  “I’ve probably had average bosses, but I have found the good in all of them.  I don’t expect them to be brilliant at everything.  Once I find their strengths, I build our relationship around that.  And I always get something from it – growth, opportunity, support, something.  Then most people become good bosses, as everyone has something to offer!”

This is a very rare perspective.  We look at our leaders and can often be quite critical, because they don’t have it all.  We often are oblivious of the impact we can have as followers. We rarely consider the effectiveness of our followership.

Are you an engaged follower?  What contribution are you making to a leader’s effectiveness?  Are you the sort of follower you would like to lead?

Do you find these questions uncomfortable?

It feels like these questions challenge what we think about leadership.  Do we still think ‘leadership’ is a role of the more senior people who get rewarded for their leadership, so they should be ‘perfect’, right?

“I just follow, what can I possibly do?”  When we take this approach, we give ourselves up to dependency and disempowerment, becoming a passive bystander.  Then we blame the leader. We don’t see the potential of our influence as a follower.

To add to the complication, the roles of leader and follower are not absolute.  We all have leadership capacity.  We each express our leadership in different parts of our lives. We might lead in a community group, in a sports group, in our faith, in our family or even in one-off situations where we see the possibility of change for the better.  You might step into your leadership to achieve this.  We also follow in different ways and times.  We shift from leader to follower as is needed – leading a team, then following our boss. At every level of an organisation we are follower and leader.  We might even lead our ‘leader’.  It’s fluid.

Our response to others shapes behaviour, both positively and negatively.  For example, lets think about providing feedback.  Many people tell me they would like more feedback, however when it comes to receiving feedback, they become defensive.  How many attempts at giving someone feedback does it take for a leader to give up because the recipient’s behaviour just makes it too hard?

Think about any number of community or organisational change efforts.  Think about individual followers and groups who resist change. Even in the face of compelling reasons for change, people who do not want to change, won’t.  In turn they influence the success of the initiative.   There are also examples when followers have stepped into and participated in change efforts driving much greater outcomes.

Let’s think even bigger:  the last Australian federal election.  The Labour party went into the election with undeniably a much larger, bolder suite of policies than the Coalition.  The policies would involve change and with it some negative impact. (This is no comment on the merits of the policies, just reflecting the influence followers have). The Labour party lost the election.  In the aftermath, the politicians’ take away was ‘don’t be bold, don’t make change, don’t have negative impact’.  Voters (followers) will have influenced all politicians to not repeat that behaviour or they will be punished.

In each of these examples we could easily lay fault with the various leaders and with their lack of vision, or its poor communication.  Their poor relationship skills, lack of follow through, inadequate engagement, or any number of things the leader did or didn’t do.  It might also be true that the followers didn’t want to hear it.

Becoming an aware, conscious follower impacts an outcome, just as leadership does.

As a follower, what do we project onto a leader?  Do we expect the leader to save us? To know everything?  To be ‘perfect’.  How often have we heard “I’m not paid for that, it’s the leader’s job?”  I don’t have to give of myself, just do as I’m told. I’ll just follow.  Yet every decision we make as a follower:

  1. impacts the leader
  2. impacts the outcome
  3. impacts our relationship
  4. impacts our view of ourselves.

When you are a follower, what does effective leadership look like to you?  As a leader what does effective followership look like?  Do you behave in line with your own expectations of leaders and followers?

When we say we want more/better leadership as a passive follower, we don’t engage we abdicate our power – we ask someone else to solve the problem, make a decision, fix something. When we don’t participate in the relationship with the leader to achieve what we want, not surprising we don’t get what we want.

When we are active and engaged as a follower and participate in the leadership as Joy did, we have a much higher chance of being clear about what we want and receiving it.  When we are engaged as followers, we put much more pressure on our leaders to step up and be the leaders we want to work with.  Effective followership is more likely to encourage effective leadership because it’s a fluid partnership.

Leaders need to acknowledge the role of positive and negative followership.  They need to be aware of the projection of followers and falling into the trap of trying to live up to ‘hero’, ‘saviour’, ‘perfect’ and help followers find their own role in the relationship.

What are the characteristics of effective followership?

  • Authenticity
  • Transparency
  • Integrity
  • Self awareness
  • Courage
  • Openness
  • Growth Mindset

The same characteristics of effective authentic leadership!

We need to talk about followership and value its contribution.  We need to enliven ourselves to be active contributors, whatever the setting, to the relationship inherent in leadership.  Then we can hope to get the leaders we deserve!

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