Walk into any bookstore or library and you will find no shortage of books on leadership. A search for the word “leadership” on Amazon.com results in more than 60,000 entries. Search for “followership” however and only 150 entries pop up.
While there is clearly an overwhelming desire to learn about leadership, interest in followership is decidedly underwhelming. Does this mean that it is very easy to become a good follower?
If your idea of a good follower is someone who does whatever he is told, then the answer is “yes”. However, the organisation of today does not want its people to simply follow instructions.
Indeed, organisations expect every individual to take the initiative and constantly seek to achieve higher levels of personal effectiveness. In other words, followers should think and behave like leaders.
While many of us understand the need to practise personal leadership, people may take on attitudes that detract from their effectiveness as followers.
Here are some such attitudes:
This is the mindset of “do what you are told; don’t ask questions”. Sometimes when you are tasked to do something, you tend to work on it without asking questions.
The fear is that if you ask too many questions, you may come across as negative or as someone with “attitude problems”. However, understanding the rationale for a task is very important. It leads you to get a big picture of your work.
For example, if you are tasked to organise a company dinner, ask questions to find out the underlying objectives. Is it meant to celebrate success, recognise individuals or promote team bonding? With a clear understanding of what is expected, you stack the odds of success in your favour.
This is characterised by the assumption that “the boss is always right”. A classic example of how the boss is not always right comes from the legendary Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company.
In the early 1900s, powered by the Ford Model T, the company produced more cars than all other car makers combined. Mr Ford was so proud and protective of the Model T that he once famously remarked: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”
Four years after the first Model T was produced, his engineers surprised him with a prototype of an upgraded version of the car. Mr Ford was apparently so incensed that his prized asset was modified, he destroyed the prototype with his bare hands.
Thereafter, his engineers never dared to suggest modifications to the Model T, and it remained unchanged for the next 15 years. The company was finally superseded by other carmakers who continued to innovate to produce better cars. Despite efforts to play catch-up later, Ford never regained its No.1 position.
Today, business has become so complex that it is no longer possible for one person, including your boss, to be an expert in all areas.
Your boss may have blind spots in terms of his prejudices, perspectives and knowledge. A good follower is one who can highlight these blind spots to his superior. The idea is not to challenge the boss but rather, to question the thought process behind the decision.
In moments of frustration at work, many of us may think: “I don’t agree with the decision, so I am not going to carry it out” or “I’m just going to pretend to do so.”
Intel addresses this with a slogan that says “Disagree and Commit”. They encourage people to disagree, raise arguments, innovate and find better ways of doing things during the decision-making process. But once the group takes a decision, everyone is expected to commit to its implementation even if they disagree with it.
By all means, challenge a decision objectively and openly, but do not undermine it once it is made. Commit to its success even if you do not personally agree.
Everybody should realise that they work as members of a group and sometimes trade-offs and sacrifices have to be made for the greater benefit of the organisation. Covert resistance, such as bad-mouthing the organisation or your colleagues, not only undermines the success of the organisation, it creates tension, distrust and toxicity in the workplace.
It is somewhat unfortunate that the topic of followership has not received as much attention as leadership. Being a follower is the first thing that everybody must learn to do well when they enter the workforce.
Practise the 3Cs of effective followership: clarifying, challenging and committing to become a more effective team member. Even if you aspire to lead others one day, you must realise that to lead, you must first learn to follow.