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Academic Insight: 4 Reasons Why You Should Focus On Followership

Photo by Gary Ussery

When I was a kid, I loved playing basketball. And every summer, I would attend a summer basketball camp at Arkansas State University where coaches would put us through various drills to practice the basic fundamentals of the sport. One of the drills I remember was learning to dribble the basketball without looking down at the basketball. During this drill, the coach would require us to line up at one end of the court and dribble to the other end with our dominant hand. But on the way back to our original starting point, we had to dribble using our non-dominant hand. I am right-handed, so dribbling down the court the first time was no problem. Coming back using my left hand… well, that was not successful! The coaches explained to the participants that to be successful in basketball, you need to be proficient at dribbling using both your right and left hands. Otherwise, the defense will be able to easily guard you by forcing you to always use your non-dominant hand.

Although to this day I still never mastered dribbling with my left hand as much as desired, I’ve thought about how that lesson has shaped my views on teaching leadership. Just as learning to dribble a basketball with both hands is important to a basketball player, so is having good leadership skills and followership skills. The process of leadership requires both leaders and followers. But what has happened is that one aspect of the process (leaders) have received almost all of the attention, while the other side (followers) has received little attention until recently. One of those reasons is that being a follower has a negative connotation. However, scholars and practitioners are starting to advocate a greater emphasis on followership in organizations.

Peter Northouse provides a basic definition of leadership and followership in his book Leadership: Theory and Practice:

  • Leadership: “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”
  • Followership:  “a process whereby an individual or individuals accept the influence of others to accomplish a common goal.  Followership involves a power differential between the follower and the leader.  Typically, followers comply with the directions and wishes of leaders—they defer to leaders’ power.”

While leadership scholars have created various typologies to describe, classify, and categorize followers into different groups, I don’t want to focus on that. What I do want to focus on are the reasons why managers and organizations should emphasize the development of followership skills in addition to leadership skills. These four reasons are listed below:

#1: Followership, in some situations, is needed for the betterment of the organization.
While possessing a leadership position does provide an individual with legitimate power and the ability to influence matters, there are limits to every leader’s knowledge and understanding.  Perhaps there is an individual who reports to you that has more knowledge and expertise on an issue. In those circumstances, being willing to step back and be the best follower would be key in producing the best possible outcome for the organization.

#2: Followership can help us to become better leaders.
A great example of this is the show Undercover Boss. It’s always enlightening to see a CEO reflect on their experiences of working as a frontline employee and how those experiences helped to inform them on ways to make improvements to the organization. In addition, demonstrating proactive followership gives an individual experience and knowledge on how to work under and to adapt to different leadership styles. This would be extremely important in those industries and organizations in which there may be higher turnover in leadership positions. It also reinforces and refines our respective leadership approaches by observing the best of the best approaches and learning which approaches that are not as successful or effective.

#3: Modeling healthy Followership can positively impact the culture of the organization.
In organizations, you have individuals who may be a) committed and actively engaged, b) simply compliant, or c) actively disengaged. The different levels of engagement could be due to whether those individuals accept the influence of those in charge. When individuals in visible leadership positions can effectively model healthy followership and strongly encourage others to do so as well, it sends a very powerful message that followership is essential to the culture of the organization.

#4: Followership is empowering as it recognizes and appreciates the talents of others.
Recognizing the expertise of others by deferring to them in important decisions, demonstrates an appreciation of the various talents and abilities that employees bring to the organization.  Sometimes those talents and skills may come from their personal life or hobbies, but yet still provides value to the organization. For example, in my classes, I have the authority to make decisions on what takes place in my classroom. There have been times during the course of my teaching career when I would seek the advice and expertise of my students on various things. I have found that this can be very empowering.

Developing a Followership Value Proposition Statement
To illustrate the importance of followership to my Leadership Theory and Application students, I require them to develop a personal Followership Value Proposition statement.  This activity was adapted from Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Customer Value Proposition (CVP) component at the center of their Business Model Canvas tool for entrepreneurs. As part of my research, I noticed that the factors entrepreneurs consider when developing a CVP for customers could also be used by individuals to develop a Followership Value Proposition statement for their leaders. This would involve articulating the unique skills and abilities an individual can offer to support their leader which ultimately benefits the organization. The Ad-Lib Value Proposition Template developed by Strategyzer (strategyzer.com) is an excellent and free tool to help one draft a concise Followership Value Proposition statement.

What do you think?

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