In a team environment high performing followers are every bit as important as good leadership, yet we pay the most attention to leadership. Recently I did an Amazon search for ‘leadership’ and got 73,828 hits, yet a search for ‘followership’ received only 187 hits, most of which were not relevant to the subject. Conclusion: leadership is the hot topic; followership …not so much.
There is a built in assumption in our society that everybody should strive to be a leader. That’s where the fame and fortune are—with the leaders. You can get a PhD in organizational leadership, but you can’t even get a bachelor’s in followership.
Who is voted the MVP football player? 99% of the time it is the quarterback—the titled leader of the team. Has a center ever been the MVP? They are always there, even when the QB is injured. They mix it up on every play. If he doesn’t get it right the play fails and the game can be lost. The center’s job is to make sure it is his quarterback that is presented the Lombardi trophy and say he is going to Disneyland.
There is one major exception to the lack of followership training: the military. The military is the best at training and educating followers. Why? Lives depend on the quick thinking and reaction of followers. The best followers get to be leaders. Their success as leaders is based on their followership.
My point is that we tend to emphasize leadership training in our organizations to the point where we have lost sight of how to get even better leaders and get a higher return on the investment in organizational training and education. Simply stated, we need a focus on followership education.
Why should an organization focus on followership as least as much as leadership?
For starters, there are more followers than leaders and they are the ones that are doing the real work. Logic tells us that we want the best followers possible and training and education are the means to develop them.
Great leaders will not guarantee an optimal organization, but great followers will come close. The best organizational leaders will come from the ranks of the followers. Therefore, focus on creating great followers and great leaders will emerge.
How do you nurture great followers? We need to go beyond the standard answer of training in the actual job and move to a view of followership education just as we have done in leadership education. Can we identify the traits of great followers? Can they be learned and taught? Yes to both, but first we need to look at organizational culture.
Followership is all about the culture
Every organization has a culture–a personality–and multiple sub-cultures which can promote or hinder the organization’s mission. Leaders and followers want their organization’s culture to be positive and productive. The formal culture can be designed and integrated in a way that the informal sub-cultures are also affected.
All organizations have lots of words on the wall: mission, vision, values, etc. statements that are impacted by the culture. The culture gives life to the words in the best case and can kill their attainment in the worst case.
The best leaders craft the details of the organization’s culture in a variety of ways from funny to quirky to serious. Some of those details can change over time, so the wise leader should put a rock-solid cultural foundation under the details.
The foundational, life-giving element is the “Followership Culture.” Seven simple principles constitute the Followership Culture that guides everyday activities by everyone in the organization. They are easily taught, learned and integrated into any organization.
The followership principles
The 7 principles that make up the Followership Culture are:
Instant Response: Begin action immediately when assigned a task; complete it as fast as possible with quality; ask the leader to adjust priorities if necessary.
Initiative: Be a self-starter, just do it; look for problems to solve; look for new ways to accomplish the mission.
Imagination: An innate capability in all humans, share ideas daily to multiply their potential power; focus on the small stuff first as it leads to larger possibilities.
Integrity: Honesty; declare mistakes immediately; tell the truth without compromise, leaders cannot lead without it; prove to be trustworthy and you will be entrusted with more.
Inquire: Ask the “who, what, why, where, when and how” questions about everything to learn; leaders look for learners; teach others.
Inform: Keep the leader updated; no secrets allowed; share your tasks and ask for input.
Involve: Life and work is a team effort, join; participate in the whole organization; act beyond the job description.
More words on the wall?
Uh, oh! Did we just add more words on the wall? Unapologetically, yes! On the wall, in the employee manual, anywhere it makes sense to put them.
But they have to be more than another set of words, they must result in action. People are accountable for their actions, so they are recorded and graded in personnel evaluation reports. The Followership Culture is also about accountability and the accountability tool is to put them in a section of the evaluation report. This way the rock-solid foundation is reinforced with re-bar (steel rods). It’s all about the culture, but it is a culture for which everyone is accountable.
Do leaders lead differently in a Followership Culture?
No. Excellent leadership is still required just like it is in any successful organization.
Yes. Their senses must be more attuned to certain leadership skills and traits in order to reinforce the Followership Culture. For example, great leaders know that they must go to the locations where the followers are doing their work. Whether it is a visit, a walk through, a lunch or just chatting on the floor, leaders know that direct contact with the followers is essential.
However, great leaders in the Followership Culture take a turn at doing the dirty work. They start with what organizational people would say is the toughest, dirtiest job and they do it for a day. Then they move on to other jobs and do them for a lengthy period. They go beyond intellectually understanding what their followers do to feeling what they do. It’s like a combination of the TV programs Undercover Boss (only this is overt) and Dirty Jobs. The leaders are the follower for that period, not the boss paying a visit over coffee.
Followership leaders educate their followers in a mindset that permeates the entire organization from top to bottom so that everyone knows what is expected when they go to work every day. If you educate followers to be great followers, your organization will perform at a higher level and great leaders will emerge.
Implementing the Followership Culture
Leaders need to gain control of the culture to propel the organization forward. If not, culture will happen on its own and it won’t be all positive. These principles are described more in depth in “Follow to Lead, the 7 Principles to Being a Great Follower.” The book contains a humorous, unforgettable fable to be used in a followership education experience for everyone in an organization. It also includes nine additional lessons for leaders so that they will be better leaders in the Followership Culture. You can see more about it at www.follow-to-lead.com.
Please share your perspective of Followership below.