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Why It Is Wrong to Glorify a Leader and Belittle a Follower

Why It Is Wrong to Glorify a Leader and Belittle a Follower

Is it bad to be a follower? We spend most of our young lives learning about the power of peer pressure and avoiding being called “sheep.” There’s a pervasive notion that being good at following others is a negative trait. Shouldn’t we desire to be mold-breaking, paradigm-subverting powerhouses?

There’s no question that we need strong leaders. They drive collective visions and propel organizations to the next level with their desire for success. A 2015 Gallup report found that half the study participants who quit their jobs cited poor leadership as the primary motivator for leaving.[1] Could it be that we are giving our bosses too much credit for the way that we feel about the work day? Followers play a bigger role in our experiences than we may realize.

What’s a leader without followers?

Your organization could have talented leaders, but without buy-in from followership, their efforts will not have much impact. The school principal that wants to promote a culture of achievement can do little without a group of dedicated teachers who believe in that mission. Regardless of a teacher’s motivation, if students don’t understand why education is relevant to them, they won’t get much out of well-crafted lesson plans. Walt Disney was just a guy with an idea until he had people to help him live out his vision. Our favorite influencers on Youtube couldn’t make content without subscribers. Leaders don’t exist without followers.

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Do you need to be a leader?

We know that leaders derive much of their power from their ability to inspire their followership. Do we all have to aspire to that corner office? The truth is that there are many reasons that people do not want to be leaders, and it has nothing to do with a lack of talent. You might have the most amazing doctor, but that doesn’t mean that he or she wants to be the head of the hospital. Maybe your doctor really loves working with patients and loathes administrative duties. The best salesperson might be completely miserable as the director of the company.

The truth is, some of us have no urge to take up the mantle of upper-level management. Opting to be a follower doesn’t mean that you lack the power of independent thought or that you don’t care about what you are doing. A battlefield full of generals won’t see victory. We need people dictating a vision, but we need people to carry out that vision too. If you’ve ever been in a situation in which everyone is competing for authority, you know how uncomfortable and unproductive such a space can be.

Saying, “No” to leadership doesn’t mean that you lack ambition or talent. Choosing to remain a follower could signify that you are happy where you are. If you feel like you are making great impact, it is not necessary to vie for the highest position in your organization. Talented followers who believe in their work are essential to the success of any endeavor.

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Before anyone can lead, they learn how to follow.

While most MBA programs focus on developing leaders, spending some time operating as a follower is good for everyone.[2] How many times have we heard from disenfranchised teachers, who are forced to enact policies set out by people who have never been in front of a classroom? This type of complaint has been echoed across a number of industries. When leaders spend time understanding the position of followers, they do a better job.

Even though being a follower doesn’t seem glamorous, you won’t be an effective leader until you’ve built up your capacity to take on more responsibilities and take initiative while respecting an organization’s power structure. As a follower, you can gain insights into more efficient ways to carry out a given task. If you do choose to pursue leadership later, you’ll be armed with a set of soft skills centered around diplomacy and collaboration that will enable you to be a more inspiring and effective leader.[3]

Not all followers are created equally.

Scholars have devised many followership typologies in order to explain the interdependent nature of leadership and followership. Barbara Kellerman’s followership model, which focuses on engagement, offers insight into the best qualities for followers to possess.[4]

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Here are the categories of followers according to the model:

  1. Isolates. This type has no attachment to the leader or the rest of their team. They fade into the background, punch the clock, and perform the bare minimum in order to keep their jobs. They aren’t invested in the company, and they are content with the status quo.
  2. Bystanders. These people take notice of their environment, but they opt not to do anything to improve the situation.
  3. Participants. Followers who do make an investment of time or energy in order to enact change (positive or negative) are considered participants. Their level of engagement gives them the opportunity to strengthen organizations, but their input is generally low-risk.
  4. Activists. Like participants, they have a stake in the organization, but they are willing to be vocal about their likes and dislikes to a higher degree. Their commitment can be a double-edged sword; they are willing to act on their principles to either bring about success or dismantle systems that they deem to be unfair.
  5. Diehards. Followers who are willing to take on the most risk are diehards. They possess absolute loyalty to a leader or cause, and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to ensure the perpetuation of their ideals. Their motivation can be a boon to their organization, but they may also actively work to destroy unfair systems. Whistleblowers are classic examples of diehards in Kellerman’s model.

We need followers, more than we think.

Robert Kelley suggests,

“Instead of seeing the leadership role as superior to and more active than the role of the follower, we can think of them as equal but different activities.”[5]

The best followers possess many of the traits that we admire in strong leaders.[6] These followers are known to:

  • Take Initiative. Engaged followers are better than apathetic ones, even if they disagree with their leadership.
  • Act as a critical friends. Leaders and organizational structures that don’t get constructive feedback do not improve. Followers who do this think critically about what they are being asked to do, and they speak up for the sake of ethics and efficiency.
  • Work to add value. A lackadaisical approach to followership can get people to retirement, but isn’t it more rewarding to continue to hone one’s craft? Excellent followers make an effort to sharpen skills that will make them more productive and able to support their mission. They take pride in their work and are willing to invest time to improve the quality of their work.
  • Value collaboration. Today’s leadership structures necessitate more input from everyone. Great followers appreciate the process of working with others to create the best outcomes.

Followers are more than cogs in the organizational machine.

Far from being disposable, followers are essential to the success of any endeavor. A vision without backing is just a dream. A leader without the respect of the people he or she leads is not going to be successful. Behind every outstanding example of leadership is a motivated followership ready to commit to a high standard of excellence.

Reference

[1]The Wall Street Journal: What do workers want from the boss?
[2]Ivey Business Journal: Followership: The other side of leadership
[3]Fast Company: 5 ways being a good follower makes you a better leader
[4]Harvard Business Review: What Every Leader Needs to Know About Followers
[5]Harvard Business Review: In Praise of Followers
[6]Project Management Institute: In Praise of Followers

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Angelina Phebus

Writer, Yoga Instructor (RYT 200)

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Last Updated on October 22, 2018

Do You Have to Give Everything Up to Get a Fresh Start?

Do You Have to Give Everything Up to Get a Fresh Start?

There is a common belief that when you want to embark or start on something new, whether it be a project, a hobby, a job or some big life change, a certain sacrifice must be made. “Out with the old, and in with the new” as they say. It’s almost as if we’re not capable of handling more than what we already have unless we let go of something. But is that really always the case?

When I was young, I took up violin lessons. I enjoyed playing the violin, but when I saw a friend playing the guitar, I got interested in that and wanted to start playing the guitar. My parents however, insisted that I continue with violin lessons and felt I should give my full attention to one instrument, rather than a few; they didn’t believe in being a Jack of all trades. And so sadly, I never got to take up guitar lessons.

Afraid of Giving it Up?

Have you found yourself in a similar circumstance? Perhaps you’re at a crossroad right now, and you’re trying to decide on whether to stay on in your current job, or move on to something completely different.

You’re not truly doing something you love or are passionate about, and so you want to make that change… but it’s a risky plunge.

You’re going to have to sacrifice everything that you’ve worked for over the years. You’re going to have to say goodbye to that big salary, the benefits that comes with the job, and you’re going to have to adjust to the changes.

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Thinking of all that is already detering you from stepping out to take that plunge, isn’t it?

Or maybe you have many responsibilities in life and little time for yourself. You have a spouse and children to take care of, maybe you’ve even got aging parents to think of.

At work, you’ve got subordinates waiting on you for advice. As a leader, you have to manage the team. You’ve got conference calls in different time zones to take, business trips to make, decisions to execute.

You have a lot on your plate, and you wish you could just set aside some time to enjoy the pleasures in life. Golf more, take the kids out more, go on vacations more.

Sure, if you wanted all that time, you could take on a lower paying job that would require less of your time. But that would mean a big pay cut and less comfort in your life. If not, you’ll just have to wait till retirement.

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Play It Safe and Regret It Later

In these situations, it usually feels like an all or nothing approach. And, it then becomes the ‘smart’ thing to just ignore the challenge and stay put. Unless you’re overly confident that things are going to work out, or that you have a back up plan in place, most people never truly dare to take on new opportunities after a certain age or stage in life for fear of losing out, falling behind or having to give up whatever it is that they’ve already accomplished thus far.

But this is also where many individuals end up feeling regret much later on in life, perhaps as they approach retirement and have a sense of unfulfillment. There is an emptiness or a lack that they start feeling because they never answered their ‘calling’ or satisfied their heart’s desires. You may end up feeling short changed and unhappy with how things have turned out.

Most people end up feeling more bitter over the regrets of not having done or tried something, rather than in the mistakes they made when they tried something. It’s always the ‘what ifs’ that will go on to haunt you.

No Sacrifice Needed!

The good news is, you don’t actually have to make such a big sacrifice when it comes to change! You can carry on with your existing way of life, your job or your responsibilities while changing or doing something new.

It’s really not that hard because everything that you do in life, whether it’s your career, relationships or even health, are driven by 7 Cornerstone Skills. These are 7 qualities that if you have them, can make you excel at anything. And we already have most, if not all, of these 7 Cornerstone Skills; we just don’t always know how to use them to the best of our abilities.

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Unfortunately, some of us may not even know the importance of these Cornerstone Skills, and how just sharpening one skill can significantly improve the wellbeing of your life.

If you’re that busy professional with far too much on your plate, thinking there’s nothing you can do to lighten the weight so that you can breathe a little and have time to enjoy life, then think again.

Because I can show you some proven techniques that will improve your Focus significantly, and the way you manage your Time. You’ll end up investing in more time, than spending time unnecessarily, thus giving you the ability to enjoy some of that time for yourself.

By learning to Learn again, you’ll be able to grasp knowledge a lot quicker, allowing you to manage your responsibilities in a smart manner.

These are just 3 of the 7 Cornerstone Skills that I’ve mentioned. By harnessing the potential of all 7, you will realize that if you truly want to achieve a certain goal or ambition, you need not worry about having to trade off a certain aspect of your life.  Instead, you’ll be able to work around things, or improve things even faster because of the skills that you’ve now enhanced from understanding how these 7 Cornerstone Skills work together.

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Making a life improvement, career switch or new goal pursuit can easily happen without risky trade-offs once you know how to harness your Cornerstone Skills into your existing life.

Ready to learn more about the 7 Cornerstone Skills and find out why they’re so important? Subscribe to our newsletter today and begin making that change you’ve been wanting to, without sacrifices!

Featured photo credit: Martha Dominguez de Gouveia via unsplash.com

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