Don’t Be Afraid To Be A Follower

We all want to be leaders. Our corporate culture wants us to want to be leaders. We seek out training, we dress the part, we jockey to take the helm of a project or a team. No one wants to admit to being a follower, and few people ever talk about the essential qualities that make for a good follower.

But why? It is a fact of life that for every leader, there must be at least one follower. In fact, in any business, the majority of the workforce is by definition made up of followers. So it is just as important to cultivate the skills of followership as it is the skills of leadership.

What’s more, developing your abilities as a follower actually sets the stage for leadership. Good followers know how to work well in a team. They know how to strike a balance between supporting the team’s objectives and probing those objectives for weaknesses. They can deliver excellent work themselves while celebrating the work of others. These are all traits that translate well to leadership. And good followers create a culture that supports, respects and enhances the work of leadership.

What, then, makes a good follower? It’s not about agreeing with everything the team leader wants or mindlessly carrying out directives. Strong followers add value, collaborate and support. The following are key traits to a good follower:

1. Contribute: As a team member, you aren’t just there to go with the flow. Engage from the beginning of the process to the end. Don’t be afraid to criticize — constructively, of course — decisions that are made, either by your teammates or your leader. And bring plenty of your own ideas to the table.

2. Listen well: A key part of being a good follower is to hear what is important to your leader and your team. Understand the goals, what’s at stake and how others think you can succeed. Pay attention to the details.

3. Support your team: Give credit to your teammates and your leader for their successes, and be generous in celebrating these successes with them.

4. Don’t campaign: Didn’t we say from the beginning that we all want to be leaders? However, let your work speak for itself, at least while you are in the middle of a project. Campaigning to replace your leadership midstream is a distraction and, in general, can erode morale. Speak up for yourself when the project is done.

5. Keep a united front: A good follower can be skeptical or disagree with group decisions, but when it comes time to present ideas or proposals externally, those criticisms should be put away. Throwing your teammates or your leader under the bus will not pay off in the end.

Part of our struggle with accepting the word “follower” is that it sometimes has a connotation of weakness or incompetence. But being a strong collaborator, someone who brings in smart ideas and makes others’ ideas better, who cheers their teammates on, who respects the people they work with and listens well to them: These are qualities on which great businesses are built. Leaders are crucial to success — but so are followers.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.