Leaders Need Strong Followers

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In a recent discussion with a senior leader about a range of challenges they were having with their higher level manager, the issue of courageous followership came up.  The response was interesting “followership, what do you mean?”

This is not an unfamiliar response as many senior leaders don’t use the term. In organisations many words are more often used to describe those who report to leaders; people, staff, employees, group, member, reports and subordinates.

Just why Followership is overlooked and forgotten is an intriguing question. The statement “Always be a leader, never a follower!” has gone a long way towards creating the stigma of being a follower.

The irony is without followers, there would be no leaders. Who would they lead? Who would become leaders if they were not at some time followers?

The key to understanding and recognising courageous followers is they and their leaders both orbit around a common purpose and not around the leader (Chaleff 1995).

It is the quality and courage of followers that influences which of the leader’s characteristics will grow.  Followers who are closest to their leaders carry a pivotal accountability; they markedly shape the tone of any leader’s tenure.

Courageous followership at senior levels is full of paradox:

  • Followers remain fully accountable for their actions while relinquishing some autonomy, personal power and authority to the leader.
  • Followers need to perform two roles: implementer and challenger of the leader’s ideas.
  • Followers derive identity from group membership but need their individuality to question and constructively challenge the group and its leadership.
  • Followers benefit from gaining critical learning from the leader, yet at the same time must be willing to teach the leader.
  • Sometimes followers need to lead from behind, breathing life into the leader’s vision, or even vision into the leader’s life.
  • Followers are often important leaders in their own right and must integrate within themselves the perspective of leadership and followership.

Followers want success for their leader, for the organisation and themselves but that takes courage. Courage implies risk because if there is no risk, courage is not needed.

It takes courage to be open and direct with a leader while maintaining a relationship.  If people are unwilling to risk whatever relationship they have with the leader by providing honest and constructive feedback, they risk losing the sense of common purpose and therefore put at risk the outcomes people have all been working so hard to achieve.

Too often because of the perceived sense of powerlessness of followers, instead of taking effective action by confronting the situation, we complain to others or stay silent. Neither serves the leader, the follower or the organisation well.  If people are unwilling to speak out, they grow more cynical of the leader. Courageous followership is the great balancer in relationships- those willing to speak out and act on the truth as they perceive it become a powerful force in their own right.

Leaders should encourage not fear courageous followership and followers should encourage and not fear courageous leadership.  Thousands of courageous acts by leaders and followers can, one by one, deliver massive improvement.

Because courage always exists in the present, the question remains what will you choose to do today to be a courageous leader and a courageous follower?

To explore more about this under researched topic go to http://www.courageousfollower.net/articles-on-followership

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