Yes, its obvious. Everyone wants to be known as a good leader. Few would like to be called a “good follower”.
I happened across an old short TED talk on YouTube where the speaker, entrepreneur Derek Siver, highlighted the importance of being a good follower with the help of a light-hearted video. He showed someone on a hillside suddenly get up and start dancing madly, and focused our attention – not on this rather strange “leader” but on the first person to get up and “follow” this dancing guy. The first person that joined in was the crucial person, according to Siver, since he influenced others to join in as well. In no time at all a large group collected on the hillside, dancing away maniacally, and hey presto – a movement was born!
We don’t like the word “follower” so we often use “team player” as a substitute. Sounds more egalitarian. Either way, the follower is someone who is a faithful fan, who believes in the leader and is able to influence others to do the same.
A client recently mentioned that the leaders that inspired him were those that had been good followers as well. It got me thinking of how little is written/spoken about the good “followership” traits many great leaders must have had.
Good followers are competent, motivated, intelligent and hard-working, like their leader. They believe in the leader/leader’s cause. They are excellent at communicating and adept at managing both upwards and downwards. But they also stand up to the leader when needed, and refuse to be yes-men. Good followers and good sycophants are mutually exclusive.
At any age or stage of life, it is beneficial to be able to practice good followership techniques. People starting out on their careers, or people who haven’t hit their 30’s yet will appreciate that a good follower can become a great No2, and a great No2 is but a step away from becoming The Boss.
The Boss, in turn, knows that it is equally important to be a good follower when the circumstances require it. If there are many people of the same seniority, for example, involved in a project – there is often a tendency to start bickering, second-guessing the project leader, taking “independent action” without communicating clearly to the leader. It takes a fair bit of humility, courage, and incredibly clear thinking to set aside the negativity of competitiveness in such a scenario and become a good follower for the project.
No matter how senior we are and how many leadership positions we may have successfully traversed, we are all followers in some aspect of our lives. A strong successful leader becomes a very willing follower of his six-year-old granddaughter, for example, in her imaginary tea party game.
In a world of partnerships where no individual is isolated, followers play a vital part in forming the cohesive society we need for a civilised life.
And the best of them become leaders in the end anyway.