Every leader is a follower, but not every follower is a leader. We do an exceptional job of training leaders, but more often than not, don’t focus enough on effective followership.
Society tends to equate effective followership to nothing more than “brown-nosing.” We relish identifying as good leaders versus good followers, but one cannot exist without the other. Training effective followers is just as important as training effective leaders.
All too often, we miss the fact that regardless of how high we climb the ladder of success, we must still support those appointed over us. In the same token, a leader can never lead without followers — though opposites, like yin and yang, they must harmoniously coexist to create a highly effective organization.
So what characteristics make effective followers?
Effective followers carry out an organization’s objectives by supporting leadership through active cooperation, participation and critical thinking. These individuals are typically the “go-to” members and are trusted by subordinates, peers and leaders.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen three consistent characteristics effective followers embody: loyalty, humility and initiative.
• Loyalty is often misunderstood. Subordinates mistakenly equate loyalty to submission. Rather, it’s simply a duty to one’s office or superior. Without loyalty, we wouldn’t be able to function as a cohesive military force.
Recognizing and following rank structure is crucial to mission success. I’ve seen time and time again that effective followers are first loyal to the position and then to the individual holding the position. While it may seem difficult to separate the person from the position, this gives effective followers objectivity when following a questionable leader.
Another aspect of loyalty is dissent or opposition. As military members, we typically see this exchange as unhealthy confrontation, but offering an opposing point of view is a vital responsibility that supports our checks and balances. Every service member shares this responsibility.
We swear to support the constitution as well as those appointed over us — this includes providing healthy dissent: offering an opposing view, constructively and respectfully, without selfish motives. In the military especially, it’s easier said than done, but without it, we can’t improve functions, correct issues or become innovative.
• Humility goes hand-in-hand with this process. In an age of instant gratification, I see humility lacking in followership. Even I challenge myself to humble my perspective when accepting constructive criticism or fail to meet my superior’s expectations.
It comes as second nature to defend and rationalize our behavior, but sometimes, putting our pride and arrogance aside helps us have some healthy dissent toward improvement. If we fail to trust our leaders, we fail as an organization. Of course, none of this applies to leaders who make illegal, immoral or unethical decisions.
We’re all human. We have bad days, issues going on at home… we make mistakes. If my boss seems upset or says something out of character, I try not to take it personally and accept it’s not about me. Effective followers know there’s more to the story and see beyond that grumpy exterior to understand there’s still a mission that needs to be supported — no matter how big or small those tasks are.
A trap we often get caught in is only putting effort into tasks we perceive as being worth our time. It’s not about us, and it’s not our responsibility to determine the worthiness of a task. Whether we accomplish a briefing or answer a quick email, every official task we do contributes to the mission.
What we do have the responsibility to determine is when we accomplish tasks. I’ve often asked my bosses, especially when they’ve been overwhelmed, which task is the most important in order of precedence for completion. Sometimes it’s the simplest of tasks that have the most impact.
• Initiative speaks volumes. A boss once told me, “you can never require initiative, but you can recognize it and reward it.” Effective followers anticipate and fulfill what their leaders and organizations need before being asked to do so.
Other aspects of initiative include actively following up; defining expectations, if not initially understood; and putting forth a good faith effort, turning every product into its best possible result.
Actively following up is a lost art in today’s fast-paced work environment. As a leader, I appreciate when my Airmen let me know they’re working issues. This allows me to focus my attention on other matters, allowing for more work to get done. Letting your boss know their priority is your priority and you’re aggressively working a task can go a long way.
Defining expectations throughout a task can yield a great reward and give effective followers an opportunity to learn their leaders’ expectations. There’s nothing worse than accomplishing a task only to get revectored and start all over. Understanding leader intent is essential to completing any task successfully and on time.
Perfection is never a standard, but doing one’s best should always be the goal. Effective followers who display initiative, build trust. The same goes for leaders — trust is a two-way street and is vital in a healthy work relationship.
Effective followership is the building block to leadership. I once heard someone say, “In clearing a path for those above, you are mutually clearing a path for yourself.” A leader can never hope to be effective unless they are first an effective follower. We’re only as strong as our weakest link.