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MBA Musings: A different view of the "F" word



There are many elements that are required for strong leadership. As mentioned in the very wording of our assignment, a few of these include the ability to evaluate, the ability to communicate and the ability to influence others. But we often spend less time thinking, writing and talking about the other side of that coin, known as followership. We don't push our children to become "followers". Nor do many of us know how to do it well and what the impact can be when it is done well. In our culture, the term "follower" tends to have a negative connotation (Hoption, 2014). A good number of people want to be "leaders" and in control of their destinies (and often those of others) and "followers" are more often associated with sheep, dependence, mindlessness and powerlessness. In truth, how you follow is equally important as how you lead, if not more important. A leader who is a poor follower will never cultivate a team of leaders, something they know nothing about and what frightens rather than inspires them.


When I consider Leader-Follower theories, two of the behaviors that I believe are absolutely required for strong followership include truthfulness and critical thinking. In order for a follower to truly be effective, she must have the ability to speak up even (and I would push the envelope and say especially) if it is counter to what her boss believes to be true.


With regard to critical thinking, an effective and active follower must have the ability and the freedom to take the initiative when it comes to decision making. Conversely, a passive follower is far more likely to limit his involvement to whatever it is that his leader would like him to do (Bjugstad, Thach, Thompson & Morris, 2006). Delegation is imperative and the trust associated with that is vital. The ability to delegate and the ability for the follower to meet and exceed expectations is necessary for both of them to grow and excel.


In both instances, the behaviors are among those that are necessary for followers to be effective. But they are also dependent on their leaders to give them the room and psychological safety that they need to fully exercise these behaviors without fear of retaliation or improper or unfair evaluation in any way. Without that enablement, effective leaders will soon seek opportunities elsewhere where their knowledge, skills and abilities will be appreciated and put to very good use. I have certainly been in that position during my career.


Followership is ultimately about employee engagement. Without good leadership behaviors, good followership will never stand a chance of being supported and enabled. Rather than managing from a top-down, command-and-control method, true followership - not a team of "yes" people - should be the ultimate goal for leaders when it comes to their teams. Well-timed check ins, 30-60-90-day planning, goal setting and coaching all go a long way in ensuring leaders and followers get what they need from one another and provide the support that is expected of them.


"It's impossible to work on the system and work in the system at the same time."

I do think a leader can maintain a personal friendship with some team members, but I do think it will have an impact of the rest of the organization even if the relationship is relatively well-controlled. The best advice I can provide when it comes to team dysfunction is to vibrate higher. Whenever possible, rise above gossip, infighting and the urge to act in a tribal way. It's not easy and you do want to stay looped in. But some of the best career advice I ever heard came from my former chief human resources officer and she said, "It's impossible to work on the system and work in the system at the same time." You have to choose one.


I choose to work on it.


Reference Bjugstad, Kent & Thach, Elizabeth & J. Thompson, Karen & Morris, Alan. (2006). A Fresh Look at Followership: A Model for Matching Followership and Leadership Styles. Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management. 7. Hoption, C. (2014). Learning and Developing Followership. Journal of Leadership Education,13(3), 129-137. doi:10.12806/v13/i3/i1





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