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Learning from Rosa Parks: A Powerful Follower

Updated: May 31, 2021

Followership in the Yin Yang of Leadership - Part 2

Browsing for good stories I stumbled on an old book recently – My Story by Rosa Parks. I had been thinking about writing Part 2 to this series on followers and no one had inspired me more as a humble leader and powerful follower than Ms. Parks.

First, let me explain why I feel so strongly about equalizing the attention field towards followers and re-thinking how we view leadership. We have been led down the rabbit hole for a long time now, by “leaders” who get blind deference or indifference from us, aided by the amplifying effects of social media. It’s no wonder powerless disenchantment reigns.

In Part One, I listed some factors that got us to such a point. One big disservice lies in how business schools and institutions pander to elitism. They distract us to no end about the leader side of leadership; but little to nothing is offered up about the follower-end of that two-way process.

It’s downright odd that we give almost no thought to being a good follower, considering that we spend most of our life thinking and deciding as one. If great leaders have to first learn how to be good followers, perhaps it’s time we figured out what that actually means.

Re-discovering Rosa Parks’ story against the backdrop of recent turbulence was like a sign.

Don't take this the wrong way. I don’t believe powerful followership is about instigating an uprising or rebellion. Neither am I calling for maverick behavior, although sometimes that may be the shake-up that’s needed. Recent civil unrests give us plenty to think about here.

I just believe we can learn a thing or two from activists of social or political movements. Like leadership traits, follower traits are likely to be common across effective followers across any backdrop. Reading Rosa Parks’ story, my question was two-fold: what were the dominant traits that made her a powerful follower, and how would similar traits play out in employees within organizations?

Rosa Parks, The Powerful Follower

Ms Parks is hailed as the mother of the American civil rights movement for good reason. In December 1955, “feeling tired” of being bullied, she simply refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, as required by bus segregation law and landed in jail for it.

Her small unplanned act of defiance quickly snowballed into a bus boycott of 382 days, propelling a young Martin Luther King Jr into the leadership limelight. It dismantled segregation laws forever and led to the Selma to Montgomery marches 10 years later, paving the way for equal voting rights. If that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is.

It would be natural to assume that Ms Parks was a leader if seen through today’s lens. Social media easily amplifies one act of “heroism” for immediate recognition and instant gratification. However, it was a different time in her day. She only gained followers and recognition as a civil rights icon many years after her story spread.

In words describing her experience during the 1965 march, Ms Parks clearly didn’t think of herself as a leader; nor did anyone else for that matter. “It seemed like a short time that I had been out of Alabama but so many young people had grown up in that time. They didn't know who I was and couldn't care less … They just kept putting me out … telling me I wasn't supposed to be in it… Whenever they would put me out (three or four different times) I would just stand on the sidelines.”

Ms Parks’ Brand of Followership

I believe what made Ms Parks powerful as a follower were predominantly these 5 traits.

1. Bigger Purpose

Ms Parks seemed to have wanted to live up to a greater purpose, saying what others didn’t want to hear or summoning up the courage to choose the difficult path, including trying to hold higher powers accountable. “I do know that I had a very strong sense of what was fair. That attitude got me into trouble sometimes,” she recounted.

Her innate sense of fair meant she couldn’t accept the racial injustices dished out to the black community. She already had a previous run-in with the same bus driver, James Blake, in 1943. In the seminal moment of her arrest in 1955, she had pointedly asked the policeman, “Why do you all push us around?”

2. Conscious Curiosity

Ms Parks listened and questioned a lot. She was switched on by more than a passing curiosity in what was going on around her, developing it almost consciously to find meaning.

Long before knowing what she could do about it, she was drawn to her husband, the first man she’d ever discussed racial conditions with and who was not afraid of “white people”. Her initial involvement with the NAACP grew out of this conscious curiosity. She was one of the first two women members in a male-dominated NAACP that led her to actively investigate racial issues.

3. Critical thinking

Despite her modest background, Ms Parks had the ability to step back and make sense of realities from a 10,000 feet viewpoint, choosing to follow decisively even when it meant going against her own grain.

She had been skeptical about nonviolence, saying it would be mistaken for cowardice, “I was raised to be proud and it had worked for me to stand up aggressively for myself… However, I saw that the tactic could be successful. … To this day I am not an absolute supporter…, but I strongly believe that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s could never have been so successful without Dr King and his firm belief in nonviolence.”

4. Equals

Despite being a woman of few words and claiming to be timid, Rosa Parks wasn’t easily intimidated or swayed by those in power, nor did she attempt to belittle those who didn’t know any better.

When she refused to give up her seat, she was really refusing to be treated less than an equal by a legal system that empowered bus drivers to enforce segregation laws with the use of a firearm. A decade later, when she was relegated to the sidelines by younger marchers who did not recognize who she was, she didn’t attempt to set them straight.

5. Practiced Discretion

Perhaps the biggest trait that marked Ms Parks as a great follower is how she knew when to step up, step back or step away. This is particularly challenging when there are no written codes or structured roles and responsibilities. It requires an act of humility, combined with the courage to exercise freewill without shirking from responsible action. At the same time, she knew when to concede and self-effaced, balancing a delicate skill of practiced discretion.

When she accepted to be the NAACP’s test plaintiff, she knew without hubris that she was not just any plaintiff. Having no police record and having worked all her life, she was a respectable member of the community. “The white people couldn’t point to me and say that there was anything I had done to deserve such treatment except to be born black.”

Getting Out of The Rabbit Hole

What other traits do you see that I’ve missed?

How would these transpose into organizations where most of us spend two-thirds of our waking life intent for the most part on doing good work? If you’ve observed these traits or others in people you know, I’d love to talk to you about it.

Opening up a perspective that puts effective followers back into the equation of leadership may just lead us out of that rabbit hole – of that I’m convinced. There's still a lot more learning we have to do though to make sense of the follower-side dynamics. So stay tuned for my next post on this series.

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