Followership: The other side of the leadership coin | Sunday Observer

Followership: The other side of the leadership coin

28 February, 2021

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” – Jack Welch

There are hundreds of theories and quotes, thousands of books, academic papers, seminars and workshops about leadership but very few about followership. If there are no followers then there are no leaders. One might say that one doesn’t need followers if one just leads oneself to his or her own goals. Even in that situation one ends up playing the dual role of the leader and the follower and therefore, one cannot exist without the other.

The best way to understand the interdependency of the two is to visualise a dancing couple, where one is leading and the other is following. The dance will bring joy to both the dancers as well as the audience when both dancers are competent at their roles and understand what the other is trying to accomplish.

Winning partnerships, not only in dancing but also in business or any other task in life, consist of people who excel at the leadership and followership roles and practise with each other. Leadership and followership are roles we all play at different times. A newborn starts life following his or her parents/primary caregivers first and then continues the learning process by following older siblings, other relatives, friends, peers, teachers, counsellors, mentors and other role-models. During their school career children also get the opportunity to play leadership roles as leaders of: the class, peer groups, student associations and sport teams.

In the adult world, of course, one can find certain situations where one has to be a follower and certain other situations to be a leader. Therefore, it makes good sense for one to be as good at both followership and leadership right from the beginning of one’s life. Some management gurus even say that one has to be a good follower to become a good leader.

Good followers

This may not always be the case since we can find good leaders who have not been good followers and vice-versa. Successful leaders would agree that the experience of being a good follower certainly helps in identifying successful followers which is a crucial factor of their success as leaders.

The word ‘followership’ unfortunately does not create a positive first impression perhaps since it automatically takes one’s memory to their childhood where they played the game ‘follow the leader’, where they had to mimic the leader without asking any questions and would fall out of the game if they were not able to do exactly what the leader did.

Another reason for such a negative feeling about the word could be due to examples of disasters created by blind followers who are sometimes known as ‘yes men/women’. One way to create ‘yes men/women’ in an organisation, of course, is to have a toxic leadership that expects the followers to do just that.

A leader who is concerned about his/her own welfare over that of the organisation, has no concern about the physical, emotional and mental well-being of the subordinates and creates a negative culture through his decisions and actions as a toxic leader.

That kind of leader would expect a robotic compliance from the subordinates rather than an intelligent followership. A toxic leader will be very comfortable with a bunch of ‘yes men/women’ around him so that his decisions will not be questioned or challenged even if the subordinates knew that they were detrimental to the organisation.

This type of blind followers would never be able to become true leaders. They may become leaders through the same kind of systems that made their boss a leader, only more toxic even than their predecessor.

True leadership

An intelligent followership requires a conscious decision to follow a true leader who inspires hope rather than fear.

The combination of a true leadership that can empower the rest of the team and a team of intelligent followers is what creates collaboration and team-work in the truest sense of the word. Lao Tzu said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists.

When his work is done, his aim fulfilled; they will say: we did it ourselves”. This will work the same way for a leader of a family, an organisation or even a country.

There are several types of followers. Effective followers are thinkers who are active and provide positive energy to encourage their leaders and the organisations. They are the go-to people for a true leader.

They can get things done even without a strong leadership and they are not prone to toxic followers either. Followers who are mere survivors can adapt to changes easily and they do not hesitate to change colours if and when necessary in order to survive. Survivors can have a negative impact on the leader as well.

Alienated followers are good critical thinkers willing to contribute their best but have lost faith in their leader and/or the system.

Then there are followers who lack initiative and are not willing to take responsibility for their actions either. They know when the decisions taken by their leaders are wrong but they would implement them anyway without taking any responsibility for the outcome.

They can destroy the leadership and/or the organisation singlehandedly. Followers who are yes-men are the worst that a leader or an organisation can have since they blindly follow and execute the orders given by the leader while supporting the leader enthusiastically. Toxic leaders who surround themselves with this type of followers get misled by them to the bottom of the pit before they even realise that the information these yes-men have been feeding them were nowhere near the reality of the situation.

Toxic followers

Many world leaders had to face such situations where the toxic followers were not only their own countrymen but also some of the other nations who pretended to be their friends and supporters.

Toxic leaders may also have been toxic followers at some point. It becomes a vicious cycle, toxic leaders creating toxic followers and toxic followers becoming toxic leaders.

It usually is difficult to break such cyclic patterns without the support of the higher authorities and the political establishments.

We can see management schools, MBA programs and universities advertising their leadership training programs, but nobody has a followership program or even just a workshop to train people to become good followers.

Perhaps, it is time to start followership training programs within which the leadership training is just a by-product.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]