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  • Rick Ezell

Followership: Key to a Mission's Success

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Curious. Did you take a college course on how to be a good follower? Ever been to a seminar on how to follow well? What about reading a book on followership? If I’d asked if you had read a book or attended a workshop on Leadership, more than likely, you have.

Leadership without followers, well, is nothing but empty and fruitless. Leadership requires followers who will execute the mission, strategy, and plans of the organization. And followers need leaders who will provide the mission, strategy, and plans for the organization.

A Ted Talk entitled “The First Follower” pictures a lone guy dancing at a festival soon another guy joins the first guy in the crazy dance. Soon others join until there is a crowd all dancing together. It provides an example of a movement that began with a leader but would not have happened without the first follower and the subsequent others who join in. The video states: “Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of Leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.” The video concludes with this lesson: “Leadership is over-glorified. Yes, it started with the shirtless guy, and he'll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened: It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader. There is no movement without the first follower. We're told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective. The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.”

Leaders need followers, and followers need leaders. Working together, they can accomplish many worthwhile projects and plans. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along with way about followers and leaders.

1. Leaders need to be easy to follow.

Leaders need the big three: Character, Competence, and a Cause. They need to have the message, integrity and focus that others are willing to follow. When they do, people follow. I read of a woman who said to her pastor, “Pastor, I would follow you on an assault on hell with water pistols.” That woman found a leader easy to follow. Army Colonel Tom Cordingly explained it this way: “When I served at Fort Knox, the executive officer I worked under would plan the strategy and then turn to me and say, ‘Make it so, Tom.’ I was his right-hand man, the ‘make-it-so’ guy. I found more satisfaction in the right-hand-man role than in leading. I’ve come to the conclusion: Give me a good man to work for, a man I love and respect, and I’ll be happy.” It begins with the kind of leader that others want to follow. Interestingly, most great leaders are not charismatic. They simply have the qualities that make it easy for others to want to follow.

2. Leaders need followers.

Warren Bennis observed that leaders are only ever as effective as their ability to engage followers. Without followership, Leadership is nothing. The key to success in Leadership lies in the collective “we,” not the individual “I.”

In other words, Leadership is a process that emerges from a relationship between leaders and followers who are bound together by their understanding that they are members of the same social group. Leaders are more effective when their behaviors indicate that they are “one of us,” because they share our values, concerns, and experiences, and are “doing it for us,” by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than own personal interests.

3. Good followers have character, too.

Our culture places limited value on following. We celebrate the great leaders but dismiss the many loyal followers. But, to succeed, leaders must teach their followers not only how to lead, but more importantly, how to be a good follower. That requires integrity.

What makes for good followers?

· They complement the leader. Followers don’t compete with the leader but complete the leader. It’s like a marriage; the husband and wife experience mutual submission; they are not in competition with one another but rather complement one another. Leadership is participatory: leaders and followers exist in a mutually beneficial relationship where each adds to the effectiveness of the other. Good followers complement their leaders by using their gifts (leaders while usually exceptionally gifted, don’t have all the necessary gifts to accomplish the task), speaking affirmation (Leadership is lonely and discouraging at times; therefore, verbal confirmation is needed), displaying loyalty (leaders need followers they can count on through thick and thin), extending support (leaders who have no one following are only taking a long walk.) Without the help of followers, leaders are doomed to failure.

· Good followers stand in the gap. Often leaders have the vision but lack the management and execution tools to see the idea become a reality. Leaders have needs, weaknesses, shortcomings, imperfections, that are often glaring. So, leaders need loyal and dedicated followers to fill the gaps in their efforts.

· Good followers take the initiative. Being a follower doesn't mean that you just stand around and do nothing until the leader tells you what to do. Leaders provide the overall plan, the vision, but followers execute. Good followers know what to do without being told. Good followers don’t just do something; they do the right things. A great story about this need for the initiative is “A Message to Garcia,” written by Elbert Hubbard. Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia in the mountains of Cuba. Rowan didn’t ask, “Where is he?” or “How do I find him?” He just found Garcia and delivered the letter.

4. Good followers make great leaders.

A study of 218 male Australian Royal Marines was conducted. The Marines differentiated themselves as natural leaders (with the skills and abilities to lead) or followers (who were more concerned with getting things done than getting their way). The researchers tracked the recruits’ self-identification as leaders and followers across the course of a physically arduous 32-week infantry training that prepared them for warfare in a range of extreme environments. The study culminated in the recruits and commanders who oversaw their training casting votes for the Commando Medal award to the recruit who showed most leadership ability. Who got the votes? Marines who set themselves up as leaders or those who cast themselves as followers? The researchers discovered that those recruits who considered themselves natural leaders were not able to convince their peers that this was the case. Instead, it was the recruits who saw themselves (and were seen by commanders) as followers who ultimately emerged as leaders. It seems that those who want to lead are well served by first endeavoring to follow.

Being a good follower teaches one how to value someone else’s opinion, consider others’ inputs, and develop emotional intelligence. They care about their followers and will demonstrate it. They understand and appreciate the limits of their Leadership and how their followers do make or break them. They know that no matter how many subordinates they have, they are still human and share the same vulnerabilities, shortcomings, and struggles as other humans. They view the people they lead as their equals. They value the contributions of each individual and their importance to achieving the end goals. They don’t punish employees who question and challenge them—because they know that having people who hold them accountable is an essential part of becoming a better leader.

5. The mission takes precedence.

Donald Phillips’ insightful book, Lincoln on Leadership, examines the character, behavior, attributes, and attitudes that made Abraham Lincoln our most honored and revered president. When Lincoln took office in 1861, he found that the United States was unprepared for war. The union had an insufficient, poorly trained, and poorly equipped army of only 16,000 men under the command of a seventy-five-year-old general, Winfield Scott. As the war waged on, Lincoln went through general after general for three years before he finally found a responsible, risk-taker man, and, most importantly, who made things happen—Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln could not have won the war without Grant. Lincoln was the leader, and General Grant was his chief subordinate. Parenthetically, historians consider General Lee to be a better leader than Grant and speculate that the war would have been over in as little as six months if Lee had been with Lincoln. It wasn’t until Grant was added to the mix that Lincoln and the Union Army found victory. In Grant, Lincoln found a strategic, aggressive, creative follower who took the initiative to accomplish the mission.

Donald Phillips comments: “All leaders should realize that they can’t do everything on their own. They simply must have people below them who will do what is necessary to ensure success. Those subordinates who will take risks, act without waiting for direction, and ask for responsibility rather than reject it, should be treated as your most prized possessions. Such individuals are exceedingly rare and worth their weight in gold.”

Businesses, teams, governments, and churches can have leaders who possess exceptional vision and provide direction, just as Lincoln did. Still, they can’t succeed without people like U. S. Grant to carry out the mission.

Leaders need followers to execute the mission.

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