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Before you lead, you need to follow. While there are college classes, online courses, seminars and a plethora of research on the topic of leadership, there’s far less information on followership, the foundation of leadership. In this article, we break down followership myths, reasons why you should enact followership qualities, how strategic followership can fast track your career, and more.
"When you’re in a relationship, you’re in a band. And when you’re in a band, you have roles that you play in the band. Sometimes, you sing lead—and sometimes, you’re on tambourine. And if you’re on tambourine, play it right. Play it with a smile, because no one wants to see a mad tambourine player. If you’re gonna play the tambourine, play it right. Play it with your ass.”
Play it right: no, this insight wasn’t spoken at a leadership conference. It wasn’t used on a slideshow at a business seminar, either.
It’s from Chris Rock’s recent comedy stand up, Tambourine.
Whether intentional or not, Rock provided—in comedic fashion—insight on the topic of leadership. Because whether you’re in a band, a relationship, a sports team, or a business, it’s important to play your role for a successful team outcome. And not only play those roles, but do so with a smile.
Just because you’re a leader in a situation today doesn't mean you’ll be a leader in a different situation. Like Rock alluded to, even leaders have to step away from the leading role and play lesser roles, such as playing the tambourine.
That’s why in order to be a leader, you must understand and utilize a foundational principle called followership.
What is Followership?
Followership is simple: it is defined as following, or the capacity or willingness to follow a leader.
While there are college classes, courses, seminars, and a plethora of research on the topic of leadership, there’s far less information on the topic of followership. Go ahead, scour the internet, and you’ll see a void.
Why? Because there’s several myths that make followership appear unattractive. It starts with the word itself.
Breaking Down Followership Myths
Followership isn’t an endearing term—says Barbara Kellerman, author of Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders.
The word follower is considered something of an insult in the United States.
This is because Americans, by nature, aren’t keen on taking orders. Just take a look at American history.
“ . . . Americans have had an anti authority Never Follow mindset from the beginning” says Kellerman.
Kellerman follows American disdain for followership from the Revolutionary War to the 1960s, and even today in the information age.
Today, following still conjures the thought of passive sheep. Some will even say followership creates oppressive regimes (cliches about Nazis).
But these myths fall short.
Following isn’t insulting, passive, or sheep like. It’s actually strategic.
Brett and Kate McKay write that when you enact the principle of followership, you do give up some of your power and freedom (like having your own work schedule). But you gain so much more: you get to work towards a common goal that is larger than yourself, something you couldn’t achieve on your own. Plus, you’ll learn so much in the process.
Strategic followership is something I’ve enacted in my own life. In my most formative years, I sought out internships with specific people and companies who I thought were leading the industry I wanted to work in.
I was following the advice of a sports radio talk show host Colin Cowherd, who once said “Don’t chase money in life. Chase great. Great management. Great vision. Great companies.”
I did whatever it took to work for these great companies, even moving from one city on the Atlantic Ocean to another on the Pacific Ocean. I did grunt work, work I felt I was above. But I still played the tambourine with a smile on my face, and doing so allowed me to be in the same room as strong leaders and soak up invaluable knowledge. When I had soaked up as much knowledge, experience, and connections as I needed, I moved on.
Doing this multiple times provided me experience I continue to pull from years later. Also, after speaking with my peers, I learned that by being a follower, I learned so much more than those who felt above followership and instead took a different path.
5 Reasons Why You Should Follow
- Following and leading is a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship. Effective followers can shape productive leadership behavior just as great leaders develop employees into good followers.
- Following sets a foundation for leadership. The adage I won’t ask you to do anything that I haven’t done myself rings true. Before you can give effective orders, you first must take them. As The Soldier’s Guide, an Army manual from 1952 says, a leader must have the ability to lead himself. Great military commanders all have one excellent trait: self-discipline. It takes self-discipline to be a good follower, and if you aren’t a good follower, chances are you won’t be a good leader.
- Being a good follower will teach you to be a leader. Ryan Holiday wrote in Ego is the Enemy that if you clear the path for people above you, you’ll learn the tools of the trade and then you can create a path for yourself. Following is the quickest way to enter any industry as a leader.
- Your project depends on it. Remember that without followers, there are no leaders. John S. McCallum writes in the Ivy Business Journal that when followership fails, not only does little get accomplished—problems manifest themselves in other areas, such as distractions, poor work ethics, lost business opportunities, and low quality products. The consequence of weak leadership and weak followership is organizational confusion and poor performance.
- Followership is critical at every stage of your career. Just because you’re a leader of a Fortune 500 company doesn't mean you should stop being a follower. The University of North Carolina says that followership is critical at every stage of your career. Leaders who have been followers in the past understand not only know how to work best with others, but also how to bring out the best in others. By helping others reach their potential, you’ll instill in them the followership principle, so they can in turn help others reach their potential later on and pass it down (think “Undercover Boss”).
What Makes Leadership and Followership Different Today
Because of today’s digital landscape, leaders are more susceptible to gossip becoming a news headline. Gone are the days of a CEO or Director hiding in an ivory tower, not having to answer for their decisions.
You’ve seen examples of this in the news: a report leaked to bloggers causing CEOs to resign, cell phones used as hot mics against employers, and more.
This is why followership is even more critical today than ever before. Without committed followers, even the greatest, well-intentioned agendas will fail.
It’s vital to understand which followers you have and also which followers you’re seeking. In her book, Kellerman says there’s 5 types of followers:
- Isolates - isolates are completely detached; those who aren't interested in what’s happening around them. For example, those who don’t vote in national elections.
- Bystanders - bystanders observe but don’t participate. For example, someone who goes along with company policies they don’t agree with to avoid getting fired.
- Participants - participants are minimally engaged in the project. They are invested enough to make an impact in some way.
- Activists - activists feel strongly one way and act on it. They are usually found in a leader’s inner circle.
- Diehards - per their name, diehards are willing to go down for their cause.
So whatever your position is, what followership steps do you need to take today?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to get the ball rolling:
- Is there anyone you should be strategically following?
- Is there someone, or a group of people, you can help to reach their potential?
- Have you identified your followers? Are they diehards or isolates?
- What actions can you take to become a better leader and a better follower?
- Are you confronting followership issues so they aren’t manifesting in other areas?
Like Rock said, sometimes you sing lead, and sometimes you play tambourine. Followership is playing it with a smile, playing it right, and playing it with your ass.