THERE must be thousands of articles or books written on the subject of leadership and countless conferences, training workshops or courses on the same subject.
A pertinent question is can tribes exist with all chiefs and no people. Organisations consisting only of leaders would have lots of ideas on which directions to head towards, but who is going to follow them?
All leaders, except the one at the very top, have to follow someone else, whichever level they belong to. Leaders are also followers. Not everyone in an organisation has to be a "leader" though one would expect a manager to have good leadership skills.
Who then are his followers? In a flat organisation, many managers have no subordinates. They manage and lead laterally. Their "followers" are their fellow managers.
Therefore, in any organisation, followership skills are just as critical to its success as leadership skills. All employees would benefit from training in followership skills including those identified as potential leaders for grooming and nurturing.
Regrettably, the focus on management and leadership skills has turned attention away from this essential need.
Waiting to lead
Back in my early marketing days, training programme participants would return to their jobs all fired up with newly acquired skills all ready to lead, only to realise that they had no followers on whom they could apply their skills.
The human resource department was well aware of the situation, and it became evident when its vice-president ended the introductory pep talk of a workshop I attended with a cautionary piece of advice: "Don't automatically expect increased management and leadership responsibilities back at the job."
Within a year, there weren't many left from that batch in the company. Many readers can identify with the feelings of those "frustrated leaders-in-waiting".
What about those who have post-training opportunities to practise leadership? I had an interesting experience with two such "leaders" in a teambuilding exercise. Finally, they were left with each other. Both were reluctant followers, or rather, non-followers. They were still very much aware of their loyalty to each other as team members but had drifted apart to "do their own thing".
The right stuff
Should followership skills training be a basic part of all employee orientation in an organisation? Yes. After all, we will be followers while only a few will have leadership roles.
As early as two decades ago, Robert E. Kelley in his 1988 landmark article in the Harvard Business Review, In Praise Of Followers, drew attention to the importance of followership. He wrote: "In an organisation of effective followers, a leader tends to be more an overseer of change and progress than a hero. As organisational structures flatten, the quality of those who follow will become more and more important."
Inevitably, apart from a few publications, this revolutionary concept was eclipsed by the world's growing preoccupation with the topic of leadership, until a milestone conference was held on Rethinking Followership in 2006. This was one of the annual Kravis-de Roulet series of leadership conferences in the United States.
While the conference provided an academic platform for the exchange of models and researched concepts, it was also an opportunity for practitioners from various organisations, including Nasa and Ernst & Young, to share their experiences of applying the concepts to practice with amazing results.
It is time to recognise the impact that effective followership has on the success of our organisations, whether public or private. This needs to be in the form of skills training included in the orientation programme of new recruits as well as an appropriate motivational programme.
Reward the follower
Followers who are recognised and rewarded for their commitment to corporate goals, acceptance of responsibilities as followers and courage to question or challenge leadership decisions contribute as much to organisational advancement as good leaders.
For instance, would the recent milk scandal in China have happened if there had been responsible and courageous followers?
However, more fundamentally, we need to change our concept of followers as being "second-class citizens".
Organisational followers have as much a place in this world as leaders. They should also be encouraged to acknowledge the power they have and develop a symbiotic and mutually respectful relationship with their leaders.