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The Boomer Bulletin - 2013
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Followership - Your Part in the Firm

Posted By Sue Thiemann, Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I recently served on an all-volunteer team where the leadership was a two person unit.  I became very aware of the difference between well-functioning leadership and less than unified leadership.  I found myself thinking a lot about what the team’s leadership should have done, could have done, etc. With every critical thought I was pointing one finger at the leadership and three at myself; thus, the reason for this article on followership. 

During the orientation, we were repeatedly told to keep the F-word foremost in our minds – be Flexible at all times.  As I evaluated the time with this team, I became acutely aware of my underperformance in the area of followership and flexibility.

Followership is often not mentioned as a skill one should develop.  It usually appears as a "non-word" when documents are spellchecked on the computer. It’s not a new concept; just one that is often overlooked, defined differently or just forgotten.

Leadership and followership are intertwined: Leaders must have followers; and followers must have leaders. How do you fit in as a follower? 

Followership can be defined as the willingness to cooperate in working towards the accomplishment of the group mission, to demonstrate a high degree of teamwork and to build cohesion among the group. Sounds pretty similar to leadership, doesn't it?  

Team efforts are valued highly in today's workforce and such efforts require active followers. Effective followership is an excellent building block to effective leadership. While there are numerous sources to which one can turn to find helpful information on effective leadership, fewer such sources exist on guiding one to be an effective follower, though there are some. The Power of Followership by Robert E. Kelley lists the following attributes as defining exemplary followership.

  • Think for themselves
  • Go above and beyond the job
  • Support the team and the leader
  • Focus on the goal
  • Do an exceptional job on critical path activities related to the goal
  • Take initiative on increasing their value to the organization
  • Realize they add value by being who they are, their experiences and ideals
  • Structure their daily work and day-to-day activities
  • See clearly how their job relates to the enterprise
  • Put themselves on the critical path toward accomplishment
  • Make sure the tasks they are to perform are on the critical path
  • Review their progress daily or weekly
  • Increase their scope of critical path activities
  • Develop additional expertise
  • Champion new ideas

Evaluation sessions are a good time to openly discuss the above attributes with your leadership.

As a follower, it is often easy to criticize the tactics, styles or ideas of a leader.  Sometimes it helps to critically evaluate our own views toward leadership, the organization and ourselves as followers in order to get a better understanding of the situation.  Through this we can learn how to create change in ourselves, how to deal with difficulties and how to become more productive and effective followers.  We might also learn that being a leader is not as easy as it may sometimes appear!  Take some time to ask yourself the following questions and don't be alarmed if some of them are a bit difficult to answer.

  • Am I truly pursuing the mission and goals of the group while balancing my self-interests?
  • What ideas, purpose or values do I share with the leader? The group?
  • Should I be taking more initiative?
  • Do I uphold my commitments?
  • Do I answer questions honestly?
  • Am I transparent and share with the leader(s) and team my challenges, obstacles and needs to achieve my larger goals?
  • Do I take accountability for my actions or blame others?
  • What particular pressures and challenges does the leader face?
  • If I and/or the group provided more support to the leader, might it improve his/her performance and profitability for the firm?
  • The leader must have some skills, qualities and abilities that helped get his/her into this position of leadership. What are they? How can I help draw these out? How can I help change the environment so these skills and abilities can be demonstrated?

Although changing ourselves is usually not an easy task, most would agree it is easier than changing others. If you are experiencing frustrations or misunderstandings with your organization’s leader(s) or team, take a step back and view the situation from the outside.  Instead of asking how you can get the leader out of his/her position, ask what you can do to help his/her performance.

Even if you are perfectly satisfied with your leadership, it is necessary for you, just as it is for a leader, to evaluate your role as a follower/collaborator/group member to determine if you are performing in this role at the highest level possible. Remember, effective leadership requires effective followership.  Do your best to make your group the best it can be!

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