Without followers, there are no leaders

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At a recent executive leadership conference, senior leaders raised a range of challenges they were experiencing and one of the leaders raised that she would like to see more courageous followership across the organisation. The response was interesting “courageous followership, what do you mean?”

This is not an unfamiliar response as many senior leaders don’t often directly reference followers, let alone courageous followers. Words more frequently used in organisations to describe those who follow leaders are; people, staff, employees, group, member, reports, and subordinates.

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

The irony is that without courageous followers, there is no leader. Who would the leader lead? Who would become leaders if they were not at some time followers? 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 because they and their leaders both orbit around an agreed common purpose and not around the leader.[1]

Courageous followership is full of paradox, particularly at senior levels, because followers:

  • Remain fully accountable for their actions while relinquishing some autonomy, personal power, and authority to the leader.
  • Need to perform two roles: implementer and challenger of the leader’s ideas.
  • Derive identity from group membership but need their individuality to question and constructively challenge the group and its leader.
  • Benefit from gaining critical learning from the leader, yet at the same time must be willing to teach the leader.
  • Sometimes need to lead from behind, breathing life into the leader’s vision, or even vision into the leader’s life.
  • Are often important leaders in their own right.

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 followers’ perceived sense of powerlessness, instead of taking effective action by confronting the situation, they complain to others or stay silent. Neither action serves the leader, the follower, or the organisation. 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 their truth as they perceive it become a powerful force in their own right.

Leaders should encourage, not fear, courageous followers and followers should encourage and not fear courageous leaders. 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

Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.


[1] Chaleff 1995.