A Cup of Leadership CaffeineI grew up to the refrain of “be a leader, not a follower,” and the drive to lead is part of who I am. Part and parcel of that has been a natural resistance through much of my early career to the notion that, “to be a good leader, you need to be a good follower.”

For me, and I know for many others, our ambition is to drive change, right wrongs and challenge the status quo and to advance. Mentally, it’s hard to connect those core professional drives with the passive and even weak sounding notion of “following.

I didn’t buy the “be a good follower” story for quite awhile in my career, and in discussions with many emerging leaders, they struggle with this concept as well.  A common theme that I hear, emphasizes the confusion around the significant difference between developing as a good follower versus blindly following someone. The two are very different, and serving as a good follower absolutely has nothing to do with suspending your own judgment, stifling your views on right or wrong or becoming visible as that most odious of corporate characters, the “Yes-Man.”

It’s time to put a positive light on followership as a prelude to effective leadership and to offer some guidance for those seeking to advance their leadership careers.

Common Misnomers About Followership:

  • Being a good follower is about nodding your head and supporting your boss regardless of your own beliefs.
  • Following equals weakness.
  • Being a good follower means that you must suspend your own judgment.
  • Being a good follower requires blind and mute obedience.
  • You’re a bad follower if you challenge your boss.
  • Followership is a euphemism for playing politics.
  • Followership requires you to focus on supporting someone over the organizational good.

My reaction to all of the above is a resounding: Wrong!

6 Ways to Grow and Develop as a Follower Without Compromising Your Integrity:

1. Know thy boss. Proactively seek to understand organizational goals and strategies as well as the personal/professional goal and priorities of the people that you work for.  Any gaps between the two are opportunities for you to engage with your boss and others to ensure proper organization, team and individual focus. And your insight into your boss’s goals and aspirations can only help you as seek opportunities to serve as an effective follower.

2. Speak Up! Just do it with tact. Choose the right opportunities to ask questions, seek clarity and professionally and politely challenge assumptions and share alternative viewpoints.  The good leader values these habits in her followers.

3. Apply for citizenship in you manager’s world. A good friend works in “Alan’s World,” where Alan organizes and presides in an attempt to both meet organizational goals and make “Alan’s daily life” a good one. Many a person has failed to pass the citizenship test in “Alan’s World,” and paid a steep price.  Don’t confuse this with compromising your ethics or morals, and do accept it as good common-sense advice. Learn the laws, rules and customs of your society and from time to time, that society is defined by your boss.

4. Accept power, politics and influence as your friends. Recognize that politics, power and influence are not dirty words and that it is naïve to ignore these facts of organizational life. You engage in the activities ethically and professionally, and you feel no shame in building coalitions and using influence to move your team’s and your manager’s programs forward. Of course, you never do this blindly. (See #1.)

5. Don’t let the boss walk around naked. With grace, courtesy and as quickly as possible, tell the emperor when he is walking about sans clothing. No one wants to see that! A good follower is a protector.

6. Seek first to understand the nuggets of gold in poorly delivered feedback. Many managers lack technique and training for supporting your development, and what might come off as unfounded criticism may very well be his or her best attempt at helping you improve. Resist the movement to anger and seek the wisdom behind the muddled message.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

We all follow someone in the workplace, and ignoring the need to become an effective follower is tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot. Your mind says, “Get out of my way and let me lead,” but reality says that you need to coexist.  The challenge is to coexist without compromising your ethics, values and your integrity.  Easy words, and quite often a difficult balancing act.

As you grow as a leader you’ll come to recognize your dependence upon good followers and you will appreciate those that follow with good intentions, untarnished morals and ethics and a fervor to help you, the team and the organization succeed.