In early 2014 while having a breakfast meeting with a colleague, he caught me quite off guard when he said to me, “you do a considerable amount of writing and training on various topics related to leadership. Have you ever considered writing or teaching something on ‘followership’?”

Quite frankly, to that point, not only had I not given much thought to the idea of writing an article or providing training on followership, the first thought that rushed through my mind when I heard the term was “What in the world is followership?” Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all successful leaders have good followers, and that might be a topic worth exploring.

As a result of that conversation, “Followership” was the topic for Contemplation Corner in the February, 2014 issue of The MBA Dispatch.

Since that time, I have spent time reading what others have to say about the topic and looking at how followers impact the effectiveness of organizations. As a result of that exploration the topic I selected for this month’s Contemplation Corner and this month’s “Worth the Time” column (which appears in the lower right hand corner of this page) is “Followership.”

What is Followership?

In his article, “Followership: The Other side of Leadership,” John S. McCallum points out “Followership is a straightforward concept. It is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you….How well the followers follow is probably just as important to enterprise success as how well the leaders lead.”*

Characteristics of Good Followers

 McCullough identifies eight characteristics that good followers possess. He refers to them as:

  • Judgment,
  • Work ethic
  • Competence
  • Honesty
  • Courage
  • Discretion,
  • Loyalty, and
  • Ego management.

Let’s look at each of the characteristics identified by McCallum.

Judgement: Everyone would agree that good judgement is critical to being a good leader; however, good judgment is equally important in the follower.

While followers must take direction from the leader, they have an underlying obligation to the organization to do so only when the direction is ethical and proper. The key is having the judgement to know the difference between just disagreeing with a directive given by the leader and a directive been unethical or illegal. A good follower knows where to draw the line.

Work ethic: McCallum points out that good followers are good workers. “They are diligent, motivated, committed, pay attention to detail and make the effort” to perform well. While it is true that leaders have a responsibility to create an environment that permits these qualities, it is the followers responsibility to be a good worker. There is no such thing as a bad worker who is a good follower.

Competence: A follower cannot follow properly unless he/she is competent at the task assigned by the leader. While it is the leader who has the responsibility of selecting competent followers and also providing followers with the skills, knowledge and abilities to be a competent follower, it is also the followers responsibility to both seek opportunities and to take advantage of opportunities that come their way to hone their skills.

Honesty: The follower owes it to the leader to provide an honest and forthright assessment when the follower has knowledge that would have an impact on the leader’s agenda. This could be information that the leader could add to the agenda to improve its impact or it could be information about something of which the leader is unaware that will have a negative impact.

Honesty is especially important in the latter situation. Followers should never practice “malicious obedience” which is the practice of doing exactly what the leader has instructed even though the follower knows that to do so will have a negative impact on the organization. The follower has an obligation to provide the leader with that information so that the leader can change the planned action or can take the necessary precautions to mitigate the damage. Respect and politeness are important but that said, it is not acceptable for followers to sit on their hands while a leader drives the proverbial bus over the cliff.

Courage: For followers to be honest with those who lead them, they also need courage. Good leaders are grateful for constructive feedback from their team. Bad leaders, on the other hand, do not welcome feedback. In this case, followers have to tread carefully and use good judgment (the first characteristic discussed) about how or whether to proceed. Being a good follower is not always easy and requires good judgment as well as courage.

Discretion: Followers owe discretion to both their organization and their leaders. Talking about work matters inappropriately is at best unhelpful and is most often damaging. One cannot be a good follower and be indiscreet.

Loyalty: Good followers are loyal to their organization and its goals. Loyalty does not demand blind obedience. Instead Loyalty is a strong allegiance and commitment to what the organization is trying to achieve (see last month’s column for a discussion of loyal employees). Followers who are not loyal inevitably become a problem to the organization. They create morale problems and discord between team members. They compromise the goals of the organization.

Ego Management: Good followers are team players in the full sense of the concept. They have good interpersonal skills. Success for a good follower is related to performance and goal achievement and not to personal recognition. While it is true that an organization cannot be successful without good leaders, it is equally true that an organization cannot be successful without good followers. Both have a role to play.

Good leaders inspire a shared vision. They challenge the process. They model the way. They enable others to act and they encourage the heart.

Good followers follow the vision and work toward achieving it. They are loyal to their organization and its goals. They are team players. They are concerned with their performance and whether it contributes to the success of the organization and not with just personal recognition.

Most good leaders started out as good followers and being a good follower today is excellent preparation for being a good leader tomorrow.

What Is Followership?
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