Leadership Through Followership

Shawn Umbrell
Sep 16 · 4 min read

You’re a great leader. You care for your people. You care for your team’s culture. In fact, you often lose sleep over the thought of both. You constantly strive to get better and to be better. But are you a great follower? You’ve got a boss, right? What would he or she say about you as a follower?

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Let’s try this. What are your team values? I bet you rattled those off quickly. At least I hope you did.

Now try this. What are your parent organization’s values? What’s your boss’s vision for the collective enterprise? Go ahead…write it down.

How did you do? I hope answering those questions was just as easy as answering those about the team you lead. I’ll be honest. I didn’t always pass that test. It took a long time for me to understand my role as a follower. I hope you learn faster than I did.

Imagine for a minute how frustrating it would be if part of your team was rowing in one direction while another part rowed in the other direction. As leaders, we sometimes cause that to happen. We either fail to communicate effectively or to put the proper checks in place to ensure teamwork and mission accomplishment. Now imagine that a third group, led by one of your subordinate leaders, is intentionally rowing in the wrong direction. This is a greater problem. Sometimes, those we lead fail to embrace our vision. They sometimes convince themselves that what you said applied to everyone else on the team except for them. Worse, they sometimes deliberately do the opposite of what you’ve asked. After all, they know what really needs to be done.

In my role as a leader, I experienced each of those situations. In some cases, a quick correction fixed the problem and got the team on track. In the worst cases, I had to remove defiant leaders from the organization. But no matter the situation, it was my responsibility to fix the problem. It was also my responsibility as a follower to make sure I wasn’t doing the same thing to my boss. What value was I to the collective team if I was not willing or able to embrace my leader’s vision and help him or her achieve it? The answer is none. In fact, not only was I hurting the collective team, I was also hurting the team I was responsible for leading. It was my obligation as a leader to ensure that my team was doing its part to help the collective team, and my boss, accomplish the collective organization’s mission. Of course, this does not imply that you should ever follow blindly. Though you have a leadership obligation to understand and support your boss’s vision, you are also obligated to avoid leading your team into something unethical, immoral, or illegal.

Are you following well? Consider these indicators that you are not:

1. You or your team take pride in rebelling against the parent organization or you take on an identity that opposes the parent organization’s culture.

2. You conduct strategic communications without consulting your boss.

3. You discuss your frustrations with your boss or his/her staff in front of your team members.

4. You regularly fail to share important information or resources with others in the collective organization in order to maintain a position of advantage.

5. You fail to “nest” your vision or intent with that of your boss.

What is nesting? Nesting is the practice of framing your organizational vision or intent within the framework of the parent organizational leader’s vision and intent. Nesting helps secure unity of effort and strengthens the relationships both vertically (with the parent organization) and horizontally (the other teams within the organization). It’s critically important that leaders at every level look both “down and in” (the team you lead) and “up and out” (the parent organization). Failing to look “up and out” could lead to decreased effectiveness as a follower.

Now, consider these actions that could improve your effectiveness as a follower:

  1. Don’t be a “yes-man.” Have the courage to disagree with your boss’s decisions. When you do, share your thoughts directly with him/her. Don’t let disagreement lead to disloyalty.
  2. Help solve your boss’s problems. You may see a solution before he or she does.
  3. Execute bottom-up refinement. Understand that the parent organization’s staff is probably busier than the one you lead. Don’t be afraid to help make a plan that comes down from “above” better by offering refinements.
  4. When you have important information that is relevant to the collective team, share it. Ask yourself, “Who else needs to know or would benefit from having this information?”
  5. Here’s a tough one, but one that is critical. Rapidly remove those leaders from your team who are either unwilling or unable to embrace your vision or that of the parent organization.
  6. If your boss asks for input to help make a critical decision, provide some. They wouldn’t have asked for it if they didn’t need it.
  7. If the “emperor” or “empress” isn’t wearing any clothes, tell them.
  8. When and where possible, integrate your boss’s key words, themes, and messages into your internal team dialogue and make them your own. This doesn’t mean you should shed your unique identity style, but you should help communicate your boss’s messages.
  9. Acknowledge and celebrate the “wins” of the other teams in your organization.
  10. Do the opposite of the five indicators that you are not following well listed earlier.

The ability to follow well is the mark of a great leader. You’re a great leader. Follow well. Your boss would really appreciate it. And remember, your team is watching and learning from you. Set them up for success in their role as future leaders…and followers.

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