March 28, 2017

No One Leads All the Time: A Series on the Power of Followership

The Beacon Newsletter [ Volume XII, Issue 1 ]
It’s amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”
– John Wooden

[Author’s Note: This is Part Two in our series on the challenges of 21st century communication. Part One can be found here, and subsequent installments will be shared via]

Leading is hard. Following is easy.

Leading is good. Following is bad.

Leading is ambitious. Following is a compromise.

Leaders are strong. Followers are weak.

Leaders are on the fast track to success. Followers are being left behind.

These mantras fairly well sum up the conventional thinking on the differences between leading and following in the 21st century business world. They are so often repeated in popular culture that we have come to accept them as truth. Leaders are highly valued. Followers aren’t. Simple enough, right? Wrong.

While this concept of leadership-over-all-else has been ingrained in our society for years, the time has come to challenge these assumptions and overcome the bias against following.

As a business culture, we spend millions of dollars and thousands of work hours each year on teaching and learning how to lead other people, while we hardly spend five dollars or five minutes teaching and learning how to follow other people. We highly value one skill set over the other. It’s a simple, undeniable fact.

In nearly every organization I know, receiving a performance-review description as “a leader” is career-making, while being labeled as “not a leader” is career-threatening. Throughout the business world, people are frightened of being classified as anything other than a leader. And they should be, because the conventional thinking threatens anyone who is perceived as such.

Yet, despite this obvious disparity in focus and resource expenditure, here is another simple fact: No one leads all the time. Even established leaders spend considerable time in meetings, groups or gatherings where someone else is in charge, leading, or doing the primary speaking. For the vast majority of us, we may get an occasional chance to lead, but we will spend far more of our professional time following someone else. And yet there is precious little professional discourse on how to do it well.

Organizations today are flatter, with far more side-by-side collaboration than top-down authority. Leadership is shared and handed off like a baton in a relay. This means that for many of us, our ability to follow well will have just as much, if not greater, impact on our professional success than our ability to lead well. And for all of us, learning how to lead and follow is the only way to cross the finish line in good standing. When we can do both well, we will have competitive advantage.

Overcoming the Bias against Followership

If all of us will need to follow at some point, then why wouldn’t we want to do it incredibly well?

Close your eyes and imagine an organization where only leading is valued, and following is considered a diminished state. Think about the organization where leading is so coveted that everyone is competing for the same precious few spots, and those who don’t get one of those spots feel like they lost. Think about the organization that has all chiefs and no Indians. Would you really want to be part of that organization? I would not.

Would you really want to be part of an organization with so much internal competition and ambition for leadership advancement, that great and true teamwork was essentially impossible? I would not.

Would you really want to be part of an organization where the internal competition for advancement created resentment from those who “lost” and dysfunction throughout? I would not.

Yet these scenarios too often describe the reality in many organizations today. As people jockey for leadership and clamor to be heard, and “lose,” dysfunction often takes hold.

Long-held assumptions about leadership have led to the belief that one skill set is valued above all the rest, such that that many of us perceive leading and following as an either/or scenario: I pursue one, and if I don’t get what I want, I settle for the other. This is flawed thinking. The choice between leading and following is not an either/or. It is both/and. You cannot be one without also being the other in some capacity.

I want to be part of an organization where people collaborate and where colleagues respect, listen to, and support each other. I would rather be part of an organization where every spot on the team is important and valued. I would rather be part of an organization where it is okay to follow and where not leading is not a professional death sentence. I would rather be part of an organization where people are seen as leaders and followers, not labeled as either leaders or followers.

We all need to be skilled in both leading and following. And if both are necessary, then both are valuable, and both are worthy of your attention.

The Power of Leading and Following

Do you think I may be overstating the problem? Look back to the disparity noted at the beginning of this piece for proof that I am not. We spend vast resources on one skill set, and next to nothing on the other. One is valued. The other is not. Our behaviors as a business culture prove the point, clearly and undeniably.

If you are a great teammate, respect other people, know how to execute a plan, are comfortable sharing credit, and know how to listen, not only are you qualified to be a great follower, you are also on your way to being a great leader. This is the ironic part of this entire discussion. In my attempt to argue that being a good follower is a good thing, I am also making the argument for good leadership. The two skills sets are synonymous. If you are truly prepared to do one well, you also are prepared to do the other one well. We simply need to adjust our perspective, keep the ego in check, and embrace the idea that both should be valued.

Now think about how powerful it would be for your career if:

  1. You were known as someone who had the ability to lead well and follow well
  2. You were known as someone who had her ego in check and was comfortable in any spot on the team
  3. You were known as a great person to work with, regardless of your role, and someone who could add value from any spot on the organizational chart.

Think about how versatile you would be. Think about how valuable you would be.

And think about how much more powerful an organization would if the strongest individuals worked together rather than competing. My point here is not to convince you that leading is unimportant. My point here is to convince you that following is also important.

I’ve spent more than 10 years as an executive coach and a corporate trainer, and I have led two Olympic sailing teams. And from my seat, being a great follower does not mean you have failed as, or are not capable of being, a leader. On the contrary, it means you are a great teammate. It means you know how to respect other people. It means you know how to execute a plan and get the job done. It means you know how to share credit. It means you have your ego in check. It means you know how to listen and have the courage to not need to be the center of attention. Great followership is about having a fantastic set of skills that everyone should covet.

My ultimate point here is to challenge the assumption that following somehow makes us lesser – less ambitious, less talented, less successful. I don’t believe any of these commonly held beliefs are true. I believe that if you have the correct attitude and skills, you can add value from anywhere on the organizational chart. I believe we should embrace our role as a leader or a follower. If we lead, we should value those who follow. If we follow, we should embrace and collaborate with those who are in the lead.

I am proud of my leadership skills. And I am equally proud of my followership skills. I actively work on both. You should, too. The best organizations will support and promote both skill sets.

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