Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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]

Advertising

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

More by this author

Angelina Phebus

Writer, Yoga Instructor (RYT 200)

Foods That Can Suppress Appetite And Help With Weight Loss Quality or Quantity? Why Don’t You Sleep On It What it Feels Like To Be The Child of Your Children? Pick Your Job Based On What You Love To Do, Not How Much You Have Invested In. How to Become Successful 10 Times Easier: Don’t Focus on Improving Your Faults

Trending in Productivity

1 How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively 2 How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit? Science Will Tell You 3 What Is the Purpose of Life and What Should You Live For? 4 Invaluable Lessons You Can Learn From Your Mistakes 5 10 Things High Achievers Do to Attain Greatness

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on October 21, 2019

How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, is a reminder of why I am so drawn to leadership as a topic. Whenever I think it is impossible for me to be more impressed with her, she proves me wrong.

Earlier this week, a former marine suggested that he had been in a long-term sexual relationship with the Senator. She flipped the narrative and used the term “Cougar,” a term used to describe older women who date younger men, to reference her alma mater.

Rather than calling the young man a liar, or responding to the accusations in kind, she re-focused the conversation back to her message of college affordability and lifted up that “Cougar” was the mascot for her alma mater. She went on to note that tuition at her school was just $50 per semester when she was a student. Class act.

But by the end of the week, news broke that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another contender for the presidency, had a heart attack. Warren not only wished Sanders a speedy recovery but her campaign sent a meal to his staff. She knew that the hopes of staff, donors and supporters were with the Senator from Vermont and showed genuine compassion and empathy.

To me, she has proven time and time again that she is more than a presidential candidate: she belongs in a leadership hall of fame.

What makes some people excel as leaders is fascinating. You can read about leadership, research it and talk about it, yet the interest in leadership alone will not make you a better leader.

You will have more information than the average person, but becoming a good leader is lifelong work. It requires experience – and lots of it. Most importantly, it requires observation and a commitment to action. Warren observed what was happening with Sen. Sanders, empathized with his team and then took action. Regardless of the outcome of this election, Sanders’ staff will likely never forget her gesture.

Advertising

You would have had to work on a political campaign in order to appreciate the stress and anxiety that comes with it. In this moment, staff may not remember everything that Warren said throughout the lengthy campaign, but they will remember what she did during an unforgettable time during the campaign.

If this model of leadership is appealing, and if you are searching for how to up your own leadership game, read on for six characteristics that good leaders share:

1. Good leaders are devoted to the success of the people around them.

Good leaders are not self-interested. Sure, they want to succeed, but they also want others to succeed.

Good leaders see investing in others just as important as they see investing in themselves. They understand that their success is closely tied to the people around them, and they work to ensure that their peers, employees, friends and family have paths for growth and development.

While the leaders may be the people in the spotlight, they are quick to point to the people around them who helped them (the leaders) enter that spotlight. Their willingness to lift others inspires their colleagues’ and friends’ devotion and loyalty.

2. Good leaders are not overly dependent on others’ approval.

It is important for managers to express their support for their teams; good leaders must be independent of the approval of others. I explained in an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, that:[1]

“While a desire to be loved is natural, managers who prioritize approval from subordinates will become ineffective supervisors who may do employees harm. For example, a manager driven by a need for approval may shy away from delivering constructive feedback that could help an employee improve. A manager fearful of upsetting someone may tolerate behavior that degrades the work environment and culture.”

In yet another example, a manager who is dependent on the approval of others may not make decisions that could be deemed unpopular in the short run but necessary in the long run.

Think of the coaches who integrated their sporting teams. Their decision to do so, may have seemed odd, and even wrong, in the moment, but time has proven that those leaders were on the right side of history.

3. Good leaders have the capacity to share the spotlight.

Attention is nice, but it is not the prime motivator for good leaders. Doing a good job is.

For this reason, good leaders are willing to share the spotlight. They aren’t threatened by a lack of attention, and they do not need credit for every accomplishment. They are too focused on their goal and too focused on the urgency of their work.

4. Good leaders are students.

In the same way that human beings are constantly evolving, so too are leaders. As long as you are living, you have the potential to learn. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you think you have; you can always learn something new.

I have the experience of thinking I was doing everything right as a manager, only to receive conflicting feedback from my team. Perhaps my approach was not working for my team, and I had to be willing to hear their feedback to improve.

Good leaders understand that their secret sauce is their willingness to keep receiving information and keep learning. They aren’t intimidated by what they do not know: As long as they maintain a willingness to keep growing, they believe they can overcome any obstacle they face.

Advertising

As both masters and students, good leaders read, listen and study to grow. They consume content for information, not just entertainment purposes. They aren’t impressed with their knowledge; they are impressed with the learning journey.

5. Good leaders view vulnerability as a superpower.

It means “replacing ‘professional distance and cool,’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” said Emma Sappala in a Dec. 11, 2014, article, “What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable” for Harvard Business Journal.[2] She went on to note the importance of human connection, which she asserts is often missing at work.

“As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to a spouse or close friend behind closed doors at night but we would never show it elsewhere during the day, let alone at work.”

This rings so true for me as a woman leader. I was raised believing that any show of emotion in the workplace could be used against me. I was raised believing that it was best for women leaders to be stoic and to “never let ‘em see you sweat.” This may have prevented me from connecting with employees and colleagues on a deeper, more personal level.

6. Good leaders understand themselves.

I am a huge fan of life coach and spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant. In addition to her hit show on the OWN network, Vanzant has authored dozens of books. In her books and teachings, she underscores the importance of knowing ourselves fully. She argues that we must know what makes us tick, what makes us happy and what makes us angry.

Self-awareness enables us to put ourselves in situations where we can thrive, and it also enables us to have compassion when we fall short of the goals and expectations we have for ourselves. Relatedly, understanding ourselves will allow us to know our strength. When we know our strengths, we will be able to put people around us who compliment our strengths and fill the gaps in our leadership.

Final Thoughts

Being a good leader, first and foremost, is an inside job. You must focus on growing as a person regardless of the leadership title that you hold. You cannot take others where you yourself have not been. So focusing on yourself, regardless of your time or where you are in your career will have long term benefits for you and the people around you.

Advertising

Further, if you want to become a good leader, you should start by setting the intention to do so. What you focus on grows. If you focus on becoming a better leader, you will research and invest in things that help you to fulfill this intention. You will also view the good and bad leadership experiences as steppingstones that hone your character and help you improve.

After you set the intention, get really clear on what a good leader looks like to you. Each of us has a different understanding of leadership. Is a good leader someone who takes risk? Is a good leader, in your estimation, someone who develops other leaders? Whatever it is, know what you’re shooting for. Once you define what it means to be a good leader, look for people who exemplify your vision. Watch and engage with them if you can.

Finally, understand that becoming a good leader doesn’t happen overnight. You must continually work at improving, investing in yourself and reflecting on what is going well and what you must improve. In this way, every experience is an opportunity to grow and a chance to ask: ‘What is this experience trying to teach me?’ or ‘what action is necessary based on this situation?’

If you are committed to questioning, evaluating and acting, you are that much closer to becoming a better leader.

More About Effective Leadership

Featured photo credit: Sam Power via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Why Good Managers Overcome the Desire to Be Liked
[2] Harvard Business Journal: What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable

Read Next