Picture the best follower you have ever known.

Was this person in possession of any of these traits?  Knew their stuff.  Had drive and determination. Was positive and willing to serve. Challenged you and made your ideas better. Helped you realize and achieve your vision.  Made you and everyone around you better.

I hope you’ve had the pleasure of working with this person on at least one occasion.

Most would agree that followers are critical to a leader’s success. In fact, without followers, could Columbus have sailed the ocean blue in 1492?  Could Shakespeare have produced any of his now world famous plays?  Could Lincoln have abolished slavery?  Could Ray Lewis have won the Super Bowl? And, could Captain Kirk have boldly gone were no man had gone before?

But, if this is true -  that followers are so important - then why do we pass down phrases like “if you’re not a leader, you’re a follower” and “be a leader, not a follower”?  Somehow, followers have earned a bad rap, haven’t they?  Think about it.  Today, the term “follower” has a negative connotation.  We don’t often hear mentors offer their mentees advice to “follow by example.”  We don’t often hear children tell their parents “I want to be a follower when I grow up.”

But, what will happen if no one aspires to be a follower?  Because, without them how else can a vision be achieved?  Barbara Kellerman, Harvard Professor of Public Leadership and author of Followership, said “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”

To me this means that, as a leader, I need to find the best followers I can and treat them in the best way possible if I’m to achieve my goals.  It is a very simple formula, really.

Also, many of the qualities that are desirable in a leader are the very same qualities we look for in our followers.  So, what distinguishes one from the other at the end of the day?  Sometimes it is a title. Other times it is a matter of who has ultimate responsibility and accountability for results.  Steve Jobs is known for saying that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” At the end of the day I believe there is a thin line separating the two.

So followers should recognize and stand proud of their roles in government, business, sports, education, and wherever else they follow.  I say it is time to take back the term.  Because without followers, there are simply no leaders, and there is simply no success.

As I think back over the followers that I admire the most, I consider these “musts” to be self-evident:

A follower must…

  • disagree and question me regularly and passionately
  • offer ideas often, openly and without ego
  • execute with the precision of a master surgeon

I’m sure there are other ways to “follow by example,” but this is a fair starting point because it speaks to the basic contributions of a follower: question, shape, and perform.

And I’m sure there are plenty of followers out there who are more than willing to disagree and offer their own perspectives on the role.  I welcome those, of course.

In the end, followers and leaders need each other. Both should strive to be the best they can be in their respective roles. And each should be cognizant and respectful of those times when they shift from one role to the other.

In closing, a student once shared with me a piece of advice they had received from their parents.  Hearing this advice is the closest I think I’ve ever come to a battle cry for followership.  It goes something like this: “if you end up being a janitor, be the best darn janitor you can be.”

This advice reminds me of the legend of the NASA janitor who was mopping the floor on the day of the first shuttle launch to the moon. When asked what he was doing he responded with “I’m putting a man on the moon.” That’s followership.

Let’s respect the thin line between followership and leadership, encourage our followers to stand proud of their role and contributions, and finally, let’s take back the term.  Maybe someday soon we’ll hear a kid say “I want to be a follower when I grow up.”

How do you follow by example?

 Photo Image: www.flickr.com/photos/pnmaryf/5656078847/

Alan Derek Utley
Alan is a Human Resources Director, Leadership Coach, and University Instructor in Management. His passion is in helping leaders be better leaders, and in helping people achieve career success. When he’s not doing that, he is spending time with family, watching movies, attending theater, sipping wine, or playing softball. Connect with Alan at LinkedIN, his personal website, and on Twitter.
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