Spend a few minutes browsing the business-oriented groups on LinkedIn and you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘Leadership’ is the be-all and end-all of professional life. You can find ‘Seven Tips for Leaders in the Making’, ‘What Leaders Eat for Breakfast’, ‘Leaders, are they Made or are they Born?’, perhaps even ‘The Seventeen Things That Leaders Think About Before They Go to Bed.’
There’s almost nothing about following. What about those millions who aren’t leaders and don’t want to be? It’s as if there’s something abnormal about them, as if gaining influence and power are the only respectable ambitions for the modern man or woman. Are the unambitious unworthy of consideration? Don’t they count at all? Should we only respect people who want more and more responsibility and power? Is there no advice for people who are proud of what they do, but don’t wish to take on the burden of greater responsibility.
It’s not as if there’s room in the boardroom for everyone to be a leader. The vast majority of people must be followers. That doesn’t mean they must be obedient automata. They’re not just instruments at the disposal of leaders. There’s much more to following than following instructions. If you want to be a good follower, or a happy follower, it’s worth thinking about how you do it.
So, what do I mean by leader? For the purposes of this post, I’ll define leadership very widely to mean anyone who manages employees or contractors in an organisation, deciding what’s to be done, who’s going to do it, when, and how. Or one, or two, or three of these. By this definition, of course, leaders are also led. In reality, no leader has full autonomy, since everyone must work within the law, whether national or international, and submit to political or judicial leadership. Even the most powerful dictator must sometimes submit to others, even if only after failure on the battlefield.
A follower, too, might sometimes be a leader. An entry-level accounting clerk might captain the local football team. But I’m interested here in leadership and following in professional life. I take a follower to be someone who isn’t responsible for the work of anyone else in his or her organisation.
It’s not always easy to be a follower. It’s not always a stress-free choice. It doesn’t always earn you the appropriate respect, especially if the ethos of your organisation is one where only ‘leadership’ is admired and cultivated.
And there are many ways of following. There’s the lazy follower who doesn’t much care about what he or she is doing, whose aim is only to collect a salary at the end of every month in return for as little work as possible. There’s the resentful follower who always knows best, generally resists change, and is often at odds with the leader’s views and methods, accepting direction, but resentfully, and with conspicuous bad grace. There’s the scheming follower who tries to undermine the leader’s plans, often whilst professing loyalty. And there’s the constructive follower who loves his or her work, and is eager that his or her team, and its leader, should achieve its goals. He or she sometimes disagrees with the leader’s vision or methods, attempts constructive influence, but finally accepts direction.
My main interest is in the last of these. How can you be a good follower, able to air your opinions and exercise your skills, have influence, but avoid the final responsibility of decision making and management?
The answer depends, to some extent, on the quality of leadership you’re dealing with. The sad fact is that many of our leaders haven’t spent enough time absorbing the plentiful advice that LinkedIn has to offer, or they haven’t taken the advice to heart. Worse still, they might think that they’re paragons of leadership, though in actual fact they’re not. Many have become leaders for the age-old reason that nearly everyone is promoted to a position one level beyond their competence. Others are leaders simply because they’ve insisted on it. A few have been leaders for so long that they haven’t kept up with the things they’re supposed to know. Following a good leader isn’t always easy, but following a bad one can be soul-destroying. Nevertheless there are good ways and bad ways of following leaders, whether they’re good ones or bad ones.
A good follower needs to have a clear sense of the extent of his or her responsibility, must be open about what motivates him or her, needs to know how to make constructive criticism, as well as how far to compromise, and should try to understand the needs of his or her leader. The best followers can ‘manage’ their leaders – manage, not manipulate.
More to come in subsequent posts.