By Rod MacLeod.
‘You are a great follower’. How would you feel if you were told that? The chances are you would be less than overjoyed. At best, it sounds like a backhanded compliment. At worst, something of an insult. You do not see ‘Seven Tips for Great Followers’ on airport bookshelves. No MBA course prospectuses promise to make you the ‘Followers of the Future’.
Followers sound like failed leaders – losers lacking in essential qualities, who are only good enough to put the ideas of others into practice. While the tip of the iceberg glistens in the Arctic sunlight, its mass lurks unnoticed in the cold water below.
Of course leadership in civil society organisations (CSOs) is vitally important. INTRAC has written extensively about it through various blogs and papers. But this is not the whole story.
When trying to understand a CSO as an outsider, understanding the nature of its leadership is a good first step. But just as important is to take the temperature with the rest of the staff and volunteers. Whatever the rhetoric emanating from the top, it is from the ‘followers’ you discover how this is translated into reality. In many ways, they define the culture (and hence ultimately the effectiveness) of an organisation. In unguarded moments, leaders will often tell you that that in spite of their elevated positions, they can feel quite powerless. They are like the captain of a supertanker who orders a change of course in the hope that, many miles further on, the ship will start to change direction.
What is followership?
In simple terms, followership is the capacity to follow a leader in a team, group or organisation. Followership and leadership are inextricably linked – reverse sides of the same coin. As the proverb puts it, ‘A leader without followers, is simply someone going for a walk’. On the other hand, followers without leadership make for an organisation without a shared sense of direction.
At first glance, the capacity to follow a leader might be dismissed simply as the ability to hear, understand and put instructions into practice. That might be enough for some basic tasks (e.g. doing the photocopying), but will be insufficient for most others. In fact an organisation dominated by a single star leader is likely to lack dynamism and will ultimately stagnate.
The implication of the above framework is clear. While the ‘sheep’ and ‘yes people’ cause few problems for the leadership, neither do they add much value. They are limited to carrying out tasks, rather than stimulating fresh thinking. The ‘alienated’ do provide independent perspectives, but in a destructive fashion. In CSOs, people tend to hold particularly strong views, bound up with their personal values and identity, which, if unchecked, can undermine their loyalty and net contribution to the wider organisation. The ‘effective’ follower manages to combine both creative thinking and active (positive) participation.
If you look at successful organisations, they are full of people with values, ideas, opinions, commitment, enthusiasm, ability and competence. Good followers do not always agree with the leadership. They may provide alternative viewpoints, new ideas and challenge the status quo. But they do so within the boundaries of accepting the broader framework of the organisation’s mission and respecting its decision making processes.
How to achieve good followership
A strong organisation hinges not just on how well the leader leads, but also on how well followers follow. To be a good leader, it is important to understand followership – what it means and how to bring it about. This means leaders must recognise what motivates people to follow in different situations and deploy the most appropriate strategies.
But it is not just the responsibility of the leadership. Followers themselves need to ask themselves and others what type of follower they are. Do they achieve an appropriate balance between independence and loyalty? Are they maximising their creative inputs, while remaining constructive?
People in organisations do not divide simply into one of the two camps. Everyone is both a leader and a follower to some extent. The most junior staff member has some scope to define how to do things better, showing leadership in their own sphere. Conversely, in certain contexts, even the Presidents or Prime Ministers will follow others, such as on new global initiatives.
In some respects then, we are all followers. What kind of follower are you?
Watch this fascinating video on the vital role of the first follower in starting a movement.
Other useful reading:
McCallum, John (2013), Followership: The Other Side of Leadership
Smith, Ed (2016), Chris Robshaw – and why being a good leader is every bit as important as being a good leader, New Statesman