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I am a Follower, and Learning to be a Great One!

Updated: May 31, 2021

Part 1 of a series on Followers In the Yin-Yang of Leadership

“I felt like the odd person out. Executives, academics, and even people sitting next to me on airplanes questioned why I would bother with followership ... Most people held a very negative view of followership and discounted anything positive that could come from the role,” wrote Robert E. Kelley in chapter one of the Art of Followership.

Today, as I write part one of a series dedicated to understanding followership, I get his sentiment. Still, I feel compelled to insist, partly because we are right in the middle of a global turmoil that's showing up flailing and failing leadership.

Crowd demonstrating
Our future is in YOUR hands - who says?

Waking Up to Followership

Widely known as the founder of followership studies, Robert Kelley published an article calling out the need to pay attention to followers back in November 1988, the first on the subject to appear in the Harvard Business Review.

Six years ago, I stumbled upon his work when I was studying organizational change dynamics. A weekend in Oxford to learn about leading change had triggered my curiosity instead about followership, thanks to a lecture by leadership guru, Michael Maccoby.

Why I couldn’t say. Maybe I saw myself as a leader only sometimes, but a follower most times. In the same instance that I wondered if that meant I was powerless to decide, act or affect change, I also knew it to be untrue. We’ve seen countless events through time like the Arab Spring or sweeping labor strikes in France.

However, I was less interested in conflict-based follower dynamics within a political context than I was in the one I knew was just below the surface in an organization's daily life.

In his lecture that weekend, Maccoby described leadership as a social process of negotiated relationship between the leader and the follower. That framing meant the latter was firmly on equal footing and was very much the other side of the same coin to the leadership process -- the Yin to the leader's Yang (peg the Yin-Yang to my Asian influence).

What I wanted to understand was this other side, but within our professional life. Was there more to being a follower than we give credit for, in influencing leaders within organizational structures? What would “good to great” followership look like, seen from the bottom up, rather than the top-down leadership view?

Most of everything I read or experienced in business life prior to that moment told me little.

How Our Conditioning Is Heavily Skewed By Centuries of Groupthink

My search on Google on "followers" at that point, met with nothing of significance. On "followership", it turned up 485 thousand items, but aside from finding a handful of thought leaders on the subject, many were evangelical messages. In comparison, leadership produced over 330 million results – almost seven times more.

Now, in the midst of a raging and invisible “enemy”, we see leaders who struggle to reassure their people; leaders who grapple with a sinking economy; leaders who exploit the situation and mislead their constituents with fake news; leaders who are powerless to protect their employees, and leaders who, themselves, are fearful and overwhelmed in a pandemic that stubbornly persists.

Meanwhile, the Google results for leadership studies have increased almost eight-fold to 2.6 billion. Followership results? A mere 5% of that with 1.3 million items – just over two and a half times more than my last research, all those years ago.

Our focus and obsession with the leader side of things remain preposterously lopsided. As learned professionals, we are being conditioned in less than healthy ways by our collective history, traditions and education -- more than we even realize. It’s the ultimate groupthink!

Leaders of our time
What are the missing pieces to their leadership?

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, said Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle. By centring stories on these individuals, we give them a larger than life aura, belittling the role of their followers and ignoring the relational dynamics between them. This way of thinking is deeply entrenched in hierarchy, rank and power systems that have inter-played for centuries: Roman emperors and gods, Chinese dynasties, European monarchies, Christendom, industrial conglomerates, political structures, etc.

In church speak, “the lord is our shepherd” and “we, his followers are his sheep”. This is the western basis for our demeaning view of followers. The skewed, one-lens stories, combined with this limited take of the term; have nurtured our beliefs through generations, that great leaders garner great followers. It's rarely the other way around. In institutions and organizations, this normalizes systemic deference and submissiveness to leadership power and its decision-making office.

It also leads us to believe that followership does not exist if there were no leadership – pretty convenient when we are leaders ourselves. It is every leader’s nightmare to have dissent in the ranks, disobedience or rebellion on his watch. Much easier to manage when followers think they owe their existence and therefore, loyalty, to their leaders.

Take a look at any social uprising and we can understand why. Recall a time when a subordinate or team member challenged our vision, strategy or decision as a leader and we probably feel that little bit of discomfort or outrage seeping through our veins.

As a result of all this, we forget three important factors, denying us our rightful dues as followers, and the importance of heeding the power of followership.

1. Calling a follower by any other name ...

We try to sugarcoat being a follower. Certain thought gurus have gone as far as replacing it with terms like partner, participant, collaborator or even collaborative leader, silent leader or upward leader.

Follower carries too much baggage, they argue. Some believe there is no place for it in a world that calls for more people-power, not meek sheep, as we bear witness to the #BLM uprising, the #Metoo movement, the #FridaysforFuture actions, and many others.

My issue with sugarcoating it is that it creates more confusion and blurs the roles and responsibilities in a leader-follower relationship. We want to help people understand and learn what effective followership means. What we don’t want is to overwhelm them with power they didn’t ask for, especially when negotiated contracts define the boundaries of those relationships in organizations.

A CEO I coached, once shared that his management team expected him to tell them what he wanted. His entire organization had gone through massive upheavals following a re-acquisition, massive hiring and international expansion. Despite his good intention of soliciting leadership collaboration for a workshop to get aligned on company vision, mission and values, they saw it as being asked to do his job and wasting their time.

Another time interviewing the subordinate of a woman leader I coached, I learnt that what he appreciated most was his boss serving as a buffer from management interactions. He liked that he could work in peace in her shadow. He didn't want to have to deal with other company leaders, and was perfectly fine staying in his shell.

These employees were clearly quite happy to just follow. So let’s call it what it is and not mince words. "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet" for many things but calling followers something else is less than helpful here because we have a lot of catching up to do.

We want to strive for a mindset shift and more study, not necessarily a vocabulary change. In fact, we need to start from a common vocabulary and shared reference of our collective history to build a meaningful future we want.

2. Leadership does not exist without followership

One underlying principle about leaders we seem to have forgotten is this: a leader has no legitimacy "without at least one follower", as Barbara Kellerman puts it. Kelley himself pointed out that “conversations about leadership need to include followership because leaders neither exist nor act in a vacuum without followers.”

Yet, management and business schools talk and teach leadership to no end, while follower or followership is given but a cursory mention, and always from a top-down lens. I get it. Executives pursue continuing education to be better leaders, not better followers.

However, if to lead, we must first follow, how then do we learn to be the follower we want to be if we keep harping only on the "glamorous" side? Meantime, all these leadership lessons continue to produce mixed outcomes.

The same way we learn about what kind of leaders inspire, how do we learn about what kind of follower and followers we admire, without having to bear arms or carry a picket sign? If leadership has shared qualities that hold up against certain context, what are they for followership?

Where we want to focus our energy is in understanding the bottom-up lens of followership. What shapes and forms do followers come in? What role can one or the many choose to tango with leaders in shaping a fruitful relationship for good?

Here's a video that shows us what might be possible (this is the original version of the short one that went viral). Notice how that lone dancer almost looks ridiculous until he is joined by a second person, then a third, etc. At about 4 mins and 55 seconds in, the dynamics change. Compare the first follower to the ones after. Enjoy, and bear in mind the simple, yet fundamental lesson it provides.

3. Followership is what we do most days

Contrary to belief, as in the cases of my two clients mentioned, many people don’t actually want to become leaders. And yes, that goes for highly skilled professionals as well. This may sound like a paradox – we don’t like to be seen as followers but at the same time, we don’t really want to step into a leadership role. That’s the kind of disconnect that doesn’t help.

Our adulation of the leader and our stigmatization of the follower are clearly to blame. No shame should be placed in being a follower, because if there were, we’d be questioning our very existence.

The truth is most of us spend more time being followers than leaders: as citizens and employees, and as senior corporate executives, politicians or technical experts. As a consultant and coach, I'm a follower of my clients, who lead me in the direction they set. I merely bring my expertise and experience to help them do better, do more or grow fast.

The most powerful democratic head of state is still a follower, required to adhere to the constitution, institution and constituents that work together to maintain his executive power.

Donald Trump found out the hard way recently in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. His joint chiefs and senior military leaders openly defied him with statements that opposed his threat about using military force.

The Fortune article reporting this, was headlined, “what the pushback of military leaders against President Trump can teach us about leadership”. I beg to differ. They may hold leadership positions but when they spoke up, it was as followers in relation to their commander-in-chief. The lesson here is without a doubt, one of “powerful” followership (more on that in my next post).

Learn To Make It Count

The point here is why would we not learn how to be more effective followers, seeing how we spend most of our days in that role? It’s how we think and act as a follower that should count, not our decision to be one or stay one.

So I’ll say it again: I am a follower and learning to be a great one! What about you? Share your thoughts and let’s get a dialogue going.

In the meantime, stay tuned for part two in this series. I’ll share what I learn about the qualities and behaviors observed of effective followers, and how they contribute to creating leaders. Sign up to get my blogdates.

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