While leadership skills are a vital area of development, they are arguably without value if individuals haven’t first learnt the vital art of followership. We explore what followership is and why it’s one of the most important skills individuals (especially junior colleagues such as apprentices and graduates) can learn for successful careers.

The Rise of Followership

It might seem paradoxical and going against the grain of ‘traditional’ views of professional development, but there is a growing consensus in the business world that in order to be a great leader, one first has to develop the trait of followership. Followership is often thought of as the antonym to leadership, when in reality they are two sides of the same coin; and as any truly great leader will know you can’t lead effectively unless you’ve also learnt to follow.

What’s important to note is that followership does not equate to submissiveness; it is not the same as obeying mindlessly or surrendering to the every whim of the leaders you follow. While this is a form of followership, it is not the kind that will benefit a business or the individual. The type of followership businesses should encourage is about respecting those you follow and yourself; investing in self- reflection, developing self-awareness and being able to challenge the opinions around you in a fair, engaging and diplomatic way. In all of these ways it is extremely similar to leadership, but differs in the focus; leaders use these skills to empower and inspire those they lead, followers use it to empower both those they follow and themselves. It’s about helping the wider team to reach its goals through co-operation, collaboration, accountability, critical thinking, proactive problem solving, engagement, initiative and independence.

In essence ‘good’ followership is about being an engaged employee, and therefore it’s something that can be heavily influenced by the leadership styles of those in charge. However it is also something that can and should be worked on by the employee independently as well; while the style of leadership you are exposed to may influence your behaviour, it is not responsible for it. Therefore choosing to develop and demonstrate the skills that make someone a ‘good’ and proactive follower is well within the employee’s control.

The difficulty is that for many people, whether intentionally or not, throughout their career they are exposed to the concept that leadership is, or should be, the long term goal. While this may be true for a large majority of people, the truth is that not everyone wants to be a leader, and instead of being encouraged to develop the skills needed for followership, most people are implicitly encouraged to ignore this essential step and leap straight to leadership. Unfortunately this rarely has the desired outcome; for those who are interested in becoming leaders, they miss out on a critical opportunity to develop fundamental skills needed to perform well, and for those who don’t aspire to leadership they feel disenfranchised and may withdraw or become complacent. It is therefore important that businesses begin to recognise the importance of promoting followership before developing people for leadership as the two are intrinsically linked.

When to focus on followership?

Cultivating followership is something that businesses need to work on throughout an employee’s career, as it will always be important no matter how far they may progress. However, it is a particularly important skill to develop in younger workers, as supporting them in developing skills of followership will set the tone for their future career path, and if they haven’t learnt how to effectively and proactively follow those senior to them, then it could negatively impact their progression.

However, many young people do not recognise this; for a lot of young recruits leadership is the ultimate aim and they do not appreciate that in order to lead they first need to be able to follow. It is therefore important that businesses highlight how effective followership will benefit them as they progress in their careers.

While much research shows that the millennial generation are, by and large, desirous of swift progression and leadership opportunities soon after joining a business, the reality is that few, if any, of the young recruits within a business are likely to be promoted to a leadership role in a short time frame. Many companies make promises of such progression to entice young employees to join their company; yet few businesses actually expect their graduates or apprentices to be running the business by the end of their placement, so the predominant focus on leadership from such an early stage is often a fallacy. Arguably this approach sets these keen, young employees up for disappointment; being educated in the necessary skills to become a leader, without a prospect of putting them into practice (at least not for some time) is likely to be extremely disheartening, and may contribute to low engagement and high turnover. It’s also unfair to expect young or inexperienced individuals to develop leadership ability so early in their careers, as many of the foundational elements of being a leader are learnt through experience, not formal learning alone. Although a business can invest money and time into educating young people about the skills needed to be a good leader, they can’t always supply the necessary experience to make them one.

The solution to this is to therefore focus on cultivating followership at this early stage of an employee’s career rather than alluding to leadership. The emphasis should be on proactively encouraging new starters to use their initiative, make suggestions, support the business, while challenging where necessary, developing effective communication skills, and respecting all colleagues and leaders as equals. This will not only lay the groundwork for developing leadership ability in the future, but it will also create a much more productive and engaging work environment in the present.

It’s also important to remember that everyone in the business is a ‘follower’ of someone else; even the CEO or owner of a business needs to follow the lead of their customers and the recommendation of experts. If they aren’t able to do this, they risk the success of their business, which is a clear demonstration of how important it is to be able to follow. A leader who behaves in a renegade way, and is not able to follow the strategic direction of the organisation, is just as much of a risk to the business as someone who uses no initiative and does little to drive change. Supporting active followership from the start will enable leaders at a senior level to be more effective at this, but it should also be something that is considered and promoted throughout an employee’s career.

As mentioned above, the idea of followership is not to be submissive to the whims of others; in the case of a leader, it is recognising when to listen to the ideas of others and allow them to take the reins. For junior employees it is following the example of leaders, but knowing when to step up and say your piece, and having the confidence to do so. It is something that needs to be actively encouraged and demonstrated by everyone within a business. It should be part of the culture, as well as a personal responsibility.

Nobody in a business knows everything, and at some point, no matter how senior you are, you will need to defer leadership to someone else; if you haven’t developed effective followership, it can be hard to relinquish control. But success in business is not about everyone doing their own thing, it is about following the lead of others where appropriate, and pulling together to achieve the vision of the organisation, and if an individual has not learnt to follow, then they will always struggle to lead.

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