Tell me about how you rate your followership skills.
Hello? Are you still there?
Are you a compliant “do what you’re told” type? Or maybe you “do more than is asked” of you because you’re an overachiever/imposter syndrome overcompensator?
But are you a good follower?
Think about your followership abilities, are they any good?
Did anyone train you to be a follower? How do you know if you are doing it well? Or, if you’re a staunch denier that you’re a follower at all (hello, ego) how do the followers around you know if they’re doing it well? (Also, in case you weren’t completely sure, you are also a follower.)
In a recent conversation with some very sharp friends we got on the subject of what makes an exceptional team and settled in on a discussion of bravery. Without bravery, followers are apathetic pawns. With bravery, followers become empowered teammates who can drive success. Brave followers understand their power and use it to make positive change - whether that means increasing output or improving processes or supporting the intangibles that are crucial to fulfilled lives. Brave followers also use their power to stop cruelty or inappropriate decisions from being enacted.
Followership then has some interesting paradoxes: we want followers to have the power and capability to do their job well, but the least-egalitarian of leaders don’t want followers to take initiative to make improvements, or maybe to take initiative at all. And yet we want followers who would prevent something catastrophic from happening to the organization. (Oh, did you think I was going to say that we want followers who would prevent catastrophic things from happening to the leader? Interesting.)
But back to followership training. How does an excellent leader train bravery in a follower? Maybe a more tangible question is: what have you done as a leader to create a culture and environment where brave followers are supported?
(If you’re still wondering if you want brave followers at all and thinking you may prefer merely compliant followers, pause for a moment and consider the spaces/roles/times when you are a follower - would you want to be 100% compliant? Ok, is your ego back under control again? No? Here’s some research related to the topic. Let’s move on.)
Brave cultures get more done, are more effective and more successful because they adapt and grow faster. A culture of bravery means you might hear/see things that are critical of your leadership. How will you respond in those situations? (How will you respond the 2nd time after responding poorly the first time?) If you get 0 leadership feedback you’re not in a culture of bravery (and you are not getting crucial clues about how to develop your leadership to be more effective). Brave cultures are also challenging for leaders who have a low opinion of followership. And yet your whole organization and your power as a leader are dependent on those followers -- paradox.
Creating a space for brave followers means, as a leader, taking specific care to validate (aka recognize) the ideas and input of followers whether or not you agree with it. Validation is a crucial skill - do you have it? (It’s so crucial that it’s a key part of my Leadership Skills for Everyday Life Masterclass - everyone needs it.) When, as a leader, you are in a position of needing to give feedback to correct behavior can you first ask enough non-judgmental questions to truly understand how the people in the situation feel? Do you treat new, interesting, unusual ideas with respect? How about the people who offer those ideas? Is there even a pathway for followers to contribute their unique perspectives? Is there a process for elevating the best ideas regardless of who offers them? In the moment, how do you respond to acts of bravery?
Creating conditions that support bravery is important and so is setting clear expectations for followers. It is also possible to train the specific followership skills you want. It might look like training in communication skills or values-aligned decision-making. As a leader, it boils down to a choice between cultivating brave followers or committing to organizational entropy.