The relationship between leaders and followers seems pretty straightforward: Leaders lead. Followers follow.
But Barbara Kellerman, a leadership lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government author of Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, says that significant shifts in technology and culture have changed that dynamic, giving followers more power. And there’s a lot you can learn about being a good leader by learning to be a good follower.
“[Good followers] support and aid the leader when he or she is doing the right thing, and stand up to the leader–having the courage to let the leader know when he or she is doing something wrong or headed in the wrong direction,” says Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., associate dean of the faculty at the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
Being a good follower doesn’t make you a “sheep,” Kellerman says. The truth is that most of us are in followership roles regularly, perhaps in our families, social circles, religions, or other settings. Here are five skills you learn as a good follower that make you a better leader.
Today, leaders need to be aware of various audiences including colleagues, coworkers, customers, board members, and the public at large. As a leader, you need to be aware of what it takes to “bring them along.”
Being a follower teaches you how to be aware of the needs of other people as well as their potential to “make my life hell from one second to the next,” she says. Good followers learn to read people and understand what upsets and motivates them.
When good followers encounter a co-worker with rabid political beliefs or a disagreeable manager, they’re probably not going to fight every battle, Kellerman says. Playing the part of the follower is easier, simpler, and often less risky.
Good followers learn how to get along with those who have differences while not ignoring those differences. That’s an important leadership trait, too, because a leader or manager can’t afford to be oblivious to the attitudes of those around him or her, Kellerman says.
Being a good follower means having the courage to dissent if you think your leader, manager, or superior, is doing something wrong-headed, Kellerman says. That’s not always easy, but it requires the guts and strength of conviction that are essential to good leadership, Kellerman says.
“Being a good follower is complicated in ways that are rather similar to being a good leader. It means being engaged. It means paying attention. It means having the courage to speak up when something’s wrong and it means having the energy and activism to support a leader or manager who’s doing things wisely and well,” she says.
In many ways, followers can “make or break” the leader influencing if and how goals are accomplished, Riggio says. In many business sectors, followers are the ones who are doing much of the creative work, although the leader may get most of the credit. Leaders who have been good followers understand how to work with people to bring out the best in them.
“Did Steve Jobs really create the iPod and iPhone, or was it the creative collective of team members at Apple? Today, leaders may be evaluated not only by how much is produced or achieved, but by the quality of the team or organization and its members,” he says.
In order to be a good follower, you need to be able to think for yourself. Riggio says the best followers support and aid the leader when he or she is doing the right thing, and stand up to the leader when he or she is headed in the wrong direction.
“Many of the same qualities that we admire in leaders–competence, motivation, intelligence–are the same qualities that we want in the very best followers. Moreover, leaders, regardless of their level, also need to follow,” he says.
In every group, there are people who have roles, the leaders and followers. There are people who are the followers, that do whatever the leader tells them and rely on the leader to make all of their decisions for them. This affects the followers negatively because they just rely on the leader which affects their individuality, and essentially making the decision about who they are. It doesn’t affect the leaders because they are the ones affecting the followers and telling them who to be, what to do and how to become what the leader wants them to be.
When I was younger, this happened to me a few times. In each of these situations, I was the same person. Even though I experienced this several times, I still didn’t know when to recognize the signs. “When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.”
In elementary school, I had a best friend and her name was Anya. I had known her since we were babies and we had been best friends ever since then, at the time. We loved to do everything together and we were both young and impressionable. Whenever our class took trips or we went out for water ice on a hot day, I always got what she ordered because I couldn’t decide on what to get. This started to happen more often and with other things besides these, and it became harder for me to make decisions for myself. I guess she noticed this happening to me, and started to use this against me for her own benefit. We continued our elementary years like this, she would tell me what to do and I would do it for her. The only time I noticed what she was doing was when my mom told me, because I was so oblivious to it.
It was my first day back to school and I was finally in middle school. I noticed the new students that were going to be in my class and one of the new kids I recognized, it was a girl from my old elementary school. She recognized me too and as the weeks and months went by, we did almost everything together. One day she came up to me, pointed out that I always had my hair up, and told me to take it out. I told her that I really didn’t want to because it made me slightly uncomfortable, but she ignored that and forcefully grabbed my hair tie and pulled it out. She said she wouldn’t give it back unless I wore my hair down for the rest of the day, and I kept my hair down for the rest of the day. Every since that day, she saw how I reacted to her actions and kept doing things like that, but it started to become too much to the point where I would do something she didn’t like and she would tell me that she wasn’t my friend any more. After I would react to her statement, she would always claim that she was “just kidding” and that I should always take things so literally. From Flowers for Algernon, Charlie was in a similar situation. “I think it’s a good thing about finding out how everybody laughs at me. I thought about it a lot. It’s because I’m so dumb and I don’t even know when I’m doing something dumb. People think it’s funny when a dumb person can’t do things the same way they can.”
Freshman year of high school I wanted to be my own person and do things for myself, but it didn’t end up being like that. At first, I only knew a few people, but over time, they became friends and we stuck together. We would always hang out and go to the same place after school. After a while, I would just hang out with them because they would always ask if I could somewhere with them. But when I said no, they would just comment that I was no fun, as if they were almost stating those things on purpose so that I would change my mind. Of course because I wanted them to stop, I went with them, even though I really didn’t want to. We used to share things about ourselves and they would always make me go first, even though they knew I didn’t like to. After I said something, they would completely change the subject and not say anything. “Professional sports offer a big tent. It has room for racists, homophobes and misogynists as well as the people they hate. And hate or judgment would seem to represent a wall that the self-identified don’t want to hit. In the case of, say, a job application or a census report, reluctance can become principled refusal: My sexuality is none of my boss’s business.”
Morris, Wesley. "Why 'Self-Identifying' Is Different Than Coming Out." NY Times. N.p., 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/magazine/why-self-identifying-is-different-from-coming-out.html>.
Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. 293. Print.