On Followership

“Leaders have followers.” 
     ~Peter Drucker

Around here, we are unabashed fans of leaders and leadership: that’s why we write. But today, we’re departing from our usual focus on leaders to recognize followers and celebrate followership. 
In the process of leadership – which is exactly what leadership is, a process – followers are full partners. The power they possess is huge, but usually underrecognized and underappreciated, by leaders and followers alike. To prove the point of the power, consider this simple illustration.
Picture a hillside populated by young adults, sitting on blankets, listening to a concert. One in the crowd (likely overserved, but that’s beside the point) determined to make a fool of himself, stands up and starts dancing. Wildly gyrating in a totally random manner would be a better description of his act.
He succeeds. Somebody takes out their cellphone and records the performance, thinking, “Will you take a look at that idiot. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that in public.” No, he would not, but there’s one in every crowd, sometimes even two. In this crowd, that other one decides join in on the action, mirroring this crazy stunt.
You know what happens. Exactly! Next thing you know, there’s a third, followed by a fourth. Soon, just about everybody’s joined in on the madness. Entirely unexpected; totally predictable. That’s how these things work.
You don’t have to imagine this: actually, there’s an eyewitness video from some observer who had to be thinking, “I gotta post this!” The best part of the video is the narrative provided by Derick Sivers. You can find this in a ten year old TED Talk:
Sivers characterizes what unfolds this way: “The first follower plays a crucial role: he’s going to show everyone else how to follow. The first follower is actually an underestimated form of leadership itself.”
Credit where credit is due: this is the stuff of genius! 
Safety Leadership – And Followership
As a supervisor or manager working in an industrial operation, I know you’re not the least bit interested in how to start a movement. That’s not your job. But you do want to see to it that every one of your followers goes home alive and well at the end of every single day. For you, that is your job, and it is job one.
What’s it take to make that happen? Followers following the rules, wearing their PPE, accepting change, reporting near-misses, perhaps even coaching up their peers when they’re not doing things like these. 
If you were to manage to accomplish those things, you’ll not only have a safe crew, you’ll have a culture of safety. So, culture, movement: what’s in a name? 
Makes that video more interesting, does it not?
No question, achieving collective behaviors like those on the part of followers requires darn good leadership. If it were otherwise, every operation would have a great safety culture, created by the spontaneous actions of followers, all of whom want to work safely. But that is absolutely not how the majority of followers are naturally inclined to behave.
So, leaders must lead. 
That truth makes it easy to miss what else is equally true: followers are powerful partners in the leadership process. Understanding why and how is absolutely in the best interest of every leader – if for no other reason than on a regular basis every leader is called upon to be a follower – of other leaders!
The Leader As A Follower
I doubt you are working for a one employee company, serving as a contractor to the operation you are part of. You are a leader, and you have followers: your crew, shift, department, site, division. Unless you are the CEO, you and your followers are part of a larger organization. You have a boss, meaning there are times where you are called upon to get onboard with somebody else’s decision; support somebody else’s program, execute somebody else’s new policy. Doing that well requires you to be a follower, and engage in good followership, does it not?
Of course it does. 
It’s all so obvious. Or should be. A leader once strenuously objected my use of the word followers: “At our site, we have a tremendously talented workforce, and every one of them are leaders – not followers!”  Even followed up the tirade by filing a dissenting opinion by email: “I will never agree with your definition!”
You’re probably thinking, “I get that a lot.” Back in the day when I was a supervisor, I did, too.
Picture the scene if that leader were right: an outfit with no followers, only leaders. Chaos would rule! Unless it was their idea of a good idea, nobody would go along with anything. Why? Because they’re leaders – not followers. 
I’m sure if this leader gave the subject some serious thought, he’d have said, “We have a great organization with people who can lead when they need to, and follow when they should.”

Truth is, every leader does both. Sometimes simultaneously.

Still, this “all leaders/no followers” does explain a certain aspect of organization reality: a lot of things do not happen anywhere at all like they’re supposed to.
For example, two business strategy consultants, Michael Mankins and Richard Steele, surveyed 197 CEO’s who run some of the biggest companies on the planet to see how well their corporate strategic plans were executed.
Before I tell you what they found, let me remind you what they were studying – in plain English: how well do leaders down in the chain of command follow the plans they’ve been handed by their bosses? 
If you’re thinking, “About as well as my followers do with my plans” you would not be wrong.

Their study, published in the Harvard Business review found “companies on average deliver only 63% of the financial performance their strategies promise…..More than a third placed the figure at less than 50%.” 
That is a lot of money being lost by followers, who did not follow their leaders. And their leaders were the CEO’s!
As to why the CEO’s plans don’t get executed the way they’re supposed to, the reasons sound just like why the latest safety program falls short of expectations: poor communication, actions required to execute not clearly defined, unclear accountability, organization silos and cultures, inadequate consequences for failure, lack of skills – and uncommitted leadership.
The lesson to be drawn from this: “No matter what the level, followers are followers.”
The Power of Followers
None of this is suggests that you should wish for a crew of mindless followers who will do exactly as told. Have that, your followers would only do what you told them, and nothing else. You’d spend your time doing their jobs for them. As a leader, you need followers capable of thinking for themselves.
So does your boss.
The Mankins and Steele study reminds every leader that no matter the job title of the leader – whether supervisor or CEO – it’s followers who do the work and ultimately determine the outcome.  True for business performance and true for safety performance.
But the power of followers doesn’t end there.
Consider credibility. When it comes to a leader’s influence, credibility is the coin of the realm. When a leader has credibility, followers will sit up, pay attention, and likely will follow the leader. Who decides the credibility of the leader? Followers! That’s why a leader has to earn credibility, the way someone running for office has to earn votes. 
But a business is not a democracy. In your organization, there will always be a certain amount of grudging followership given the supervisor: followers will do just enough to stay out of hot water, but no more. By comparison, the illustration in the opening story represented the purest form of leadership: follower behavior was 100% voluntary.
Sure, Mankins and Steele found some amount of execution, just not a level anywhere close to what was desired and planned. Consider what might have been accomplished by committed followers!
As For You
You might be reading this thanking your lucky stars your followers follow you as well and often as they do. That is no small feat: good followership is not the norm. If that’s you, you might want to give your good followers some praise – because they deserve it. 
On the other hand, your followers may not be nearly so inclined to follow your lead. You’re in good company, including most of those CEO’s Mankins and Steele surveyed. If you think that the reason you have a followership problem is because “I’m just a front line supervisor” their study proves otherwise. 
Finally, you can’t ignore the importance of being good at following yourself. That does not mean being great at saying, “Yes, boss.”  
A basic principle in military training for leaders is that in order to be a good leader, it’s necessary to learn how to become a good follower first. That’s one of the reasons for the design of military basic training for officers: they either learn how to follow or do not survive the experience.
A valuable lesson for every leader.
Paul Balmert
May 2021

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