The Art of Effective Followership: Standing Up and For Our Leaders

The Art of Effective Followership: Standing Up and For Our Leaders

Posted with permission from Brigadier General John E. Michel, USAF – Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan; Commander, 438 Air Expeditionary Wing

“Leaders rarely use their power wisely or effectively over long periods unless they are supported by followers who have the stature to help them do so.”  Ira Chaleff

One of the long standing traditions associated with beginning a New Year is to resolve to do something different in the future. To some of us, that different something may mean committing to exercise more, eat healthier, learn a new skill, eliminate a bad habit, and the list of possibilities goes on and on. This year, I’ve chosen a very different resolution than I have in the past. Instead of striving to run a marathon, pen a book proposal, or learn to paint, I’ve committed to doing something really, really challenging (for me, anyway).

   I’ve decided I need to work on becoming a better follower.

   You see, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been working on becoming a successful leader. I’ve read scores of books, attended countless leadership development programs at prestigious schools and, most importantly, have been privileged to exercise leadership in both peace and war. But for the thousands of hours I’ve invested in trying to become a better boss, I’ve spent very few working through what it means to become a successful follower. 

   It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this that we are a society seemingly infatuated with leadership and disinterested in followership. Though the subjects are inseparable, we certainly don’t value followership the same way we lionize leadership. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, it is certainly easy to understand why most people prefer to be a leader…following doesn’t feel as important as leading.

   The fact of the matter is, nothing could be further from the truth. You see, I’ve come to understand that true success isn’t a function of one particular person’s special skills but rather, is a byproduct of the contribution of people all the way up and down the organizational chart. So much so that research confirms leaders contribute on the average no more than 20% to the success of organizations. It’s the followers who are critical to the completion of the remaining 80%.

   Given that leadership and followership are so inextricably linked, how can you go about transforming the nature of your relationship with your boss? How can you ensure you are doing your part to be an effective follower? The answer is found in a single, unlikely if not admittedly uncomfortable word: Submit.

   To submit is to surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another person. Derived from ancient Greek military imagery, the word literally refers to those who were “ranked under” someone in an established position of power. Submission then speaks to our supporting those placed in positions over us by choosing how we can best translate desired intentions into meaningful actions.  

   Let’s be clear. Submission is not natural. Nor is it something that is particularly comfortable. Signing up to support someone else’s agenda, promote someone else’s plan, and follow someone else’s direction isn’t easy. But it is necessary if you are committed to standing up and for your leader. 

  So what can you do to invest more time in becoming a better follower? I recommend you begin by keeping this mnemonic, SUBMIT, in mind:  

Silence your Inner Critic. It is easier to criticize than it is to empathize. If you are honest with yourself, there is virtually no instance when you will fully understand why your boss is asking what they are asking or directing what they are directing. In order to become a better follower, you have to trust there is more at play than you see. Assist your boss in becoming a better leader by asking respectful questions or sharing information they may not have. Help him or her do a better job by silencing your inner critic; choosing to be helpful instead of disrespectful.

Understand Your Own Limitations. One of the keys to becoming a better follower is being real about what you can and cannot control. When bringing an issue to your boss for a decision, do your homework and have as much relevant information as possible. Know the pros and the cons, the upside and the potential downside. Don’t take it personally when your ideas are challenged or your opinion disregarded. Remember, it is your job to provide your boss the best possible information and advice you can muster. It is your boss’s responsibility to decide if he or she will put it to good use.

Be a Problem Solver, not a problem spotter. No one likes being around someone who is quick to bemoan all that is wrong yet never seems to offer ideas on how to make them right. Bosses innately appreciate followers who illuminate challenges and then do the extra work to identify solutions to address these problems…so the next time you are inclined to communicate an issue or shortcoming, be sure you finish the thought. Commit to solving more problems than you do spotting them.

Make time to get out of your head and into your heart. One of the most frustrating things for a leader is to assign a task or give an order and then watch the ball drop because the person didn’t follow through on what they said they would do. Effective followers give their best effort towards completing the work assigned to them, knowing the outcome reflects not only their efforts, but those of the leader and the entire team. Giving your best, especially when frustration and stress levels are high, won’t happen with half-hearted devotion.

Insist on managing your emotions. Emotion can quickly get the best of us, especially if we are passionate about a subject or convinced of the validity of our position. There will be days when your boss may seem unreasonable, but you must remember they are the ones accountable for results. Rather than push back on their position in public, ask to discuss your concerns with him or her in private. Chances are, the better you are at keeping your emotions in check, the greater your likelihood of influencing your boss to take your opinion, idea or concern, seriously. Let your objectivity create a cycle of mutual receptivity.

Tell yourself regularly, if it is to be, it must begin with me. You may not always agree with the manner in which your boss chooses to lead and that’s okay. We all possess skills others don’t. To be a good follower means you willingly come along side your boss to make the team better, bringing insights, talents and resources they can’t produce without you. As author Ira Chaleff reminds us, “At the heart of all transformation of relationships lies transformation of ourselves.” Never forget, the most powerful tool you have to promote positive change is setting a good example. Be the leader you want to see by committing to being the best follower you can be.

   With all this in mind, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover a popular definition of followership simply reads “a position of submission to a leader.” That’s it. No long list of traits provided. No complicated formula or elaborate description required. Seven words which tell us everything we need to know: To follow, we need to accept a particular position (submission) in support of a particular person (your boss), making what is important to them important to you…understanding the best investments you can make in becoming a better leader is learning to truly appreciate what it takes to be a successful follower.

   Happy New Year.

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