Everyone wants to be a leader. People study leadership and many measure their value in the workplace by the level of leadership they obtain, pursuing it as though it is the ultimate professional goal. But not everyone can or should be a leader at work. More importantly, if everyone were to lead, who would follow? Who would actually do the work?
It seems as though we have put to much value on a person’s ability to be a leader. Workers are the real backbone of any organization. We need people who are great workers and who are great at following the direction and implementing the plans of their leaders. They are the real contributors in the workplace and in many ways they are having a greater influence the organization’s performance than leaders. But when was the last time you read a book or even an article on how to be a good follower? We all have great ideas, we all have our opinions and we all have our on agenda and we get frustrated when we see people proposing a plan that is inferior to our own. But the reality is that for an organization to be successful, to actually get things done, it needs more people that are willing to follow and implement the plan, than leaders. When organizations lack good followership you will see competing personal agendas, unmet goals, low morale, and high levels of conflict accompanied by low productivity, low employee engagement and unsatisfied customers.
I often give managers a hard time, and rightly so. I strongly believe that due to poor selection and a lack of training, there is a vacuum of good leaders and that vacuum extends for the corporate world, to government, to the military to the non-profit sector resulting in low employee engagement, high turnover, low morale and low productivity. But to place all of the blame solely on the managers is neither fair nor realistic. The reality is that many managers are also frustrated and on the cusp of burnout, and a lack of good followers is partially to blame.
The reality is even leaders have to follow. There can only be one person at the top and at any given time, there can only be one leader in a group. Every leader has times when it is in the best interest of the organization and it’s goals to submit to another’s authority, even if it’s on a temporary basis. When leaders are not good followers, you have backbiting, territorialism, sabotage, and a company that works in silos, but when leaders put their egos in check and learn to follow at the proper times, they create a healthy, cohesive, collaborative environment. Aristotle once said: “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.”
Following is not a passive activity it is intentional and dynamic.Good followersmust actively engage themselves to be a effective. Here are 4 things that all great followers do:
Complement your boss’weaknessesinstead of criticizing them– The reason you are part of a team is because you bring unique skills to the table. To be a good follower means you are willingto use those skills to make the team better, bringing insights, talents and resources the team can’t produce without you. That also means that you may bring talents that your boss doesn’t have. Instead of getting frustrated because you see your boss’s weaknesses, get engaged and use your skills to be a support to your boss and a benefit to the entire team.
Take ownership of your job – If you know me, you know that one of my pet peeves is a manager who constantly micromanages their associates. That doesn’t mean that some micromanaging isn’t justified. One reason managers tend to become micromanagers is because they see their people standing by and waiting for specific instructions. If people only work when they are told what to do, guess what’s going to happen? They’re going to be given a lot of instructions. If you see a problem fix it. If you’ve finished the work that’s been assigned to you, find out what else can be done. Help out one of your coworkers with their workload, be a resource. Provide more service than you get paid for. Almost everyone I talk to thinks they are under paid and deserve more. But rarely is that belief based on what people actually do. Prove that you’re worth more and you might just get more. And what ever you do, when your leader asks you to do something (assuming it’s not illegal or unethical) do it! You may have to get clarification, or if you already have a million things to do, you may need to understand how to prioritize it within your workflow. You may even need to express concerns if there is information that the boss may not have considered, but a good contributornever says, “that’s not in my job description.”
Communicate – Things rarely go as they should, problems always arise and deadlines are missed. Tell your leader about problems on the early end. A great follower never waits for an assignment to approach it’s deadline or until someone asks them for an update to notify their leader about delays and problems. Even if you already have a plan to work around the problem, keeping your leader in the loop is critical for the team to experience success.
Be a support to your boss and know when to keep your opinions to yourself – All of us have good ideas and there is a time and place to share them. But there are also times when a decision has been made and that adding your opinion is of no value. It is a treacherous thing to undermine your boss or blame them for a decision that is not popular, regardless of how smart you believe you are. Recently I was part of what I’ll call a team building activity. I had just finished being the leader of the team for an activity. We were now starting a new activity and a new leader was assigned from within the group. He told us how he wanted to approach the activity. I made a suggestion about how we could use what I thought was a more effective strategy, but he then said “I hear you, but this is how I want to go about it.” I was about to reiterate my suggestion when a voice in my head said, “Hey, you’re not the leader so go with his plan,” at which point I closed my mouth and listened to what he wanted me to do. I decided that I would not only do it, but I would fully invest myself into his plan instead of just go through the motions. Guess what, the plan worked. I still believe I had a better strategy, but often it’s not the great idea that brings success, it’s the team functioning as a team to implement the idea that brings success.
Many of the best leaders are also great followers. In fact, one of the greatest ironies of being a good follower is that following actually prepares you to be a great leader. Aristotle once said: “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.”