Corner Office-To Be an Effective Leader/Follower

Corner Office-To Be an Effective Leader/Follower

Ten ways to improve your "followship."

As time passes and I gain experience, I realize that in order to be an effective leader, I must also be an effective follower. I’ve learned that, at times, I’ve focused on leading the way up the mountain more than listening to the direction my organization was telling me to go. I thought that was what I was supposed to do.

Is it any wonder? How many courses are taught in business schools about being a good follower? Zippo. Nada. None. And while thousands of books and articles have been written about leadership (some even by me), little has been written about being an effective follower. In fact, the abridged dictionary has several definitions of leadership, and Dictionary.com even lists the word in multiple languages, including Estonian, Icelandic, and Slovenian. But there’s not one definition listed for “followship.”

I suppose nobody wants to be called a follower because it conveys weakness or blind faith. Images of the children’s game of “Follow the Leader” come to mind, in which whoever copies all the actions of the leader perfectly wins the game. Gee, does any American businessperson in his or her right mind want to be thought of in that way? An organization of androids blindly following a leader is rarely a successful organization.

Perhaps the only good advice about being an effective follower can be found in the world’s best-selling book of all time: the Bible. I certainly don’t believe that I could improve upon that subject matter.

The truth is that it takes both effective leadership and followship for an organization to accomplish its goals. It’s impossible to be a leader without a following. Put simply: To get things done, a leader must point the way to a common goal and the rest of the organization must follow. By the same token, a leader must earn the right to a following. It’s a two-way street, a complex dance, an equal partnership. So, because followship is equally as important as leadership, I’m offering up these 10 ways to improve your followship.

Understand the Vision

Leaders gain a following by clearly envisioning the future state of the organization and communicating it to all employees. Effective followers understand that vision, ask questions about it, and know how their daily responsibilities fit into accomplishing the common organizational agenda. In other words, they know where they’re going and how to get there.

Some leaders aren’t good communicators, and sometimes they don’t have a clear vision for the future. If that’s the case, followers must ask questions and offer input that is helpful for moving their organizations toward a defined vision.

Be Engaged Daily

Effective followers don’t just do their time—they spend their time doing. Rather than complaining about what’s not right, they get involved in helping the cause. Good followers are loving critics. If they don’t like the way things are being done or the direction the company is headed, they get engaged in new ideas and solutions. They maintain an active role and are clear about what they can do to make a difference, and then get on with doing it.

Make Yourself Valuable

We all have coworkers who only do what’s asked of them and rarely take the initiative to take on a project that they simply know needs to get done. Too many people wait for a leader to tell them what to do, instead of having ideas themselves or being creative and resourceful on their own. They say, “Why hasn’t anyone trained me on this?” or “Why doesn’t anyone value what I contribute to this organization?” Good followers ask, “How can I learn how to do this?” or “How can I make myself more valuable?” There’s a difference.

Talk About Tough Stuff

It’s the followers who are closest to operations and customers, and who really know what’s working and what’s not. Unfortunately, too many organizations have a corporate culture that doesn’t allow for the bad news to get to the top. Unless, of course, the person at the top asks for it; then it becomes a game of hot potato over who delivers the bad news. Effective followers get beyond the “It’s not my problem” problem and understand that it’s everyone’s problem to make the organization the most productive and efficient it can be. They aren’t afraid to tell the boss about major issues and they continually ask tough questions to learn what can be done to resolve them. And they aren’t afraid to disagree and defend their position if they have information that backs up their point of view.

Be Accountable

Do you ever play the blame game? It looks like this: Everyone stands in a circle with their arms crossed in front of them, index fingers pointing at the people on either side, saying, “It’s not my fault, it’s their fault.” Good followers have the courage to deliver what they promise, when they promised it. They do what they said they were going to do, and when they mess up, they face up to it. Responsible and dependable followers get more respect and appreciation from their coworkers and managers, and in turn they respect themselves more.

Tell the Truth

Warren G. Bennis, pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies and chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said: “What makes a good follower? The single most important characteristic may well be a willingness to tell the truth. In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to hear it or not. Followers who tell the truth and leaders who listen to it are an unbeatable combination.” What a novel idea! Listening to the followers who are closest to the customers, the operations,  and the distribution. No wonder Bennis sells so many books!

Build Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm cannot be faked. It’s the responsibility of a follower to make a conscious choice to either have a positive, enthusiastic attitude at work or to leave the organization. If you are constantly grumbling and complaining, what are you accomplishing for yourself or your organization? Don’t be dead weight. Choose to build enthusiasm or else choose to go somewhere else that offers something that you can be enthusiastic about. Life’s too short to be unhappy every day.

Challenge Ideas, Support Decisions

Leaders rely on their followers to have a critical eye on new ideas and, if they are courageous leaders, will welcome healthy debate about new strategies, product ideas, and operational improvements. But after the debate is over and the decision is made, it’s time for followers to get behind the leader and drop the debate. Don’t sabotage the idea by dragging your feet, missing deadlines, and putting up obstacles. Put your own agenda to the side, move on, and get the job done. Don’t disrespect your leader behind his or her back, but believe that your long-term interests are best served by serving the team, not yourself. When the play is called, you must run the pattern or get off the team.

Have an Open Mind

Effective followers also realize that while they may have been with an organization for a long time and have “been there, done that,” it just may be possible that they don’t know it all. They don’t criticize new ideas as unworkable, unusable, or just plain stupid. It just may be that your leader has a few good ideas, too. Accept direction and instruction, training, and constructive criticism.

Be a Good Human Being

So this leadership-followship thing is really a full circle. You probably have realized that the characteristics of an effective follower are also the characteristics of an effective leader. That’s because the line between leader and follower is constantly being blurred: leaders giving direction while listening to what their people are telling them, followers defining customer needs and wants while the leader defines the vision, and leaders earning the right to their following. It’s a constant, complex give-and-take dance that we step through every day, isn’t it?

In the end, being an effective leader or follower is about being a good human being. It’s about being self-reliant, cooperative, honest, responsible, and engaged enough to care about making your organization and community a better place.

Followers lead by example within their companies, and are often leaders in their families and religious organizations. Both require loyalty, dependability, and unselfishness.

Whatever position you find yourself in—leader, follower, or, at times, both—make sure it’s about improving the lives of the stakeholders in your company and the people in your community.

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