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The art of followership

CCLBlog Team Excellence The art of followership

The art of followership

Followership is such a powerful word. And probably abused lately. But what is it? Who does it? What does it look like? And for
how long? Check our take on followership.

Followership – such a powerful word! But what is it? Who does it? What does it look like? And for how long?

The label “excellent follower” can be a backhanded compliment.  It is not a reputation you necessarily want if you are seeking higher corporate office.  There is something of a stigma to followership skills.  Pity because the practical reality is one does not reach progressively more responsible leadership positions without demonstrating an ability to follow and function effectively in a group.  The fact is that in organisations everybody is both a leader and a follower depending on the circumstances which just adds to the paradox of the followership stigma.

With over 20 years of leadership courses along with military operational experience, something that was missing from the very good leadership syllabus was FOLLOWERSHIP!

What is it; Followership, as I see it, is a straightforward concept?  It is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a programme, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.  It gets a bit of a bad rap!  How well the followers follow is probably just as important to industry success as how well the leaders lead.

Let me give you an example of what this looks like:

In 2015 I was extremely fortunate to be the lead coach for a world championship event which was held in Australia. At the time of selection, I had someone that was simply outstanding as an individual, whatever he did, he achieved, racking up his expertise and constantly delivering. However, the team that were selected to travel and compete on the world stage needed his support and guidance to help the team and the leader succeed. It’s probably worth stating at this point this particular team had never finished top 5 (out of 20) in the championships, ever!

The facts are, he was the best! However, the biggest obstacle was having an individual mind-set and not a team mind-set. This took a difficult conversation to mutually align with the expectation. Should he be selected? A question that kept me awake at night! The conversation went well, it was greed he would not be participating if he had an individual mind-set, it was a team environment that would create the success.

He stepped up, helped the leader and the team develop. He showed a few qualities (that I will share with you below) that displayed pure followership. Oh, in 2015, it was the first time Great Britain won the world championships!

Here are 7 key qualities to being an excellent follower:

First, One Team mind-set.  Followers must embrace a “One Team” mind-set, one in – all in! The key is having the ability to understand that when you’ve been heard and understood – that’s enough, you may not be the decision maker, but someone has to be. It may not be your idea that has been taking forward, a good follower accepts this and demonstrates commitment to the common cause.

Second, Communication.  Good followers are good workers and communicate any knowledge they have that will help others. Communication in the virtual space is something that needs to be a high priority, a good follower communicates at the right time in order to help others understand and move forward. Leaders have a responsibility to create an environment that permits this quality but regardless, it is the responsibility of the follower to communicate as much as possible.

Third, Respect For Others.  We are all different, we come from many different backgrounds and all require different needs. Do you know what the needs are for your team members? The fallout from knowing this is “respect for others”, if you understand your team and they understand you, the followership momentum is so much easier. Take time to get to know your team.

Fourth, Honesty. The follower owes the leader an honest and forthright assessment of what the leader is trying to achieve and how. This is especially the case when the follower feels the leader’s agenda is seriously flawed. Respect and politeness are important but that said, it is not acceptable for followers to sit on their hands while an inept leader drives the proverbial bus over the cliff. Good leaders are grateful for constructive feedback from their team.  Bad leaders do not welcome feedback and here followers have to tread carefully.  If the situation is serious enough, consideration should be given to going above the leader in question for guidance.

Fifth, Vulnerability. Followers need to be honest with those who lead them. They also need to show vulnerability when they need support. It takes real courage to be vulnerable and confront a leader about concerns with the leader’s agenda or worse, the leader herself. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.

Sixth, Share Your Strengths and Weaknesses. Sometimes we’re tested not to show our weaknesses, but to show and discover our strengths. You may be familiar with the quote “be careful who you share your weaknesses with, some people can’t wait for the opportunity to use them against you” – being a good follower, this is not the case, a good follower shares and allows those team members who excel in that area, help. Your leader will want to understand what your strengths are, as well as your weaknesses, this allows the leader to delegate tasks accordingly for the greater good.

Seventh, Attitude. Your attitude to get something done, is up to you. You control how you react! You can influence the outcome based around the attitude you have towards the situation. A leader needs the team to carry the attitude that fits the business, and the list maybe endless. A statement from a book that I once read (Man’s Search For Meaning by Dr Viktor Frankl, quoted on page 9 – “you have the ability to choose your attitude in any giving set of circumstances” – after years spent in a concentration camp, the one thing that allowed him not to give up on life was that statement, which is totally transferable in the modern era, especially when in the followership role.


Followership will always be in the shadow of leadership. But there are no leaders without followers and on-going success with weak followers will usually prove less productive. It is true that an organization is only as good as its leaders. It is also only as good as its followers. Who would not benefit from giving some thought to how they could be a better follower? Such thought may actually hasten your trip to the leadership position you actually want.