For years, we've held on to the conventional belief that the best leaders are driven individuals with domineering personalities.
Perched in their ivory towers, they tell employees what to and where to go; employees take their marching orders like good soldiers, because they know that doing otherwise could hurt their chances of promotion, salary increase, or keeping their jobs.
In the current corporate reality, however, this traditional management view is severely off-base.
We're told that to be successful leaders, we need to put ourselves in positions of power and dominance, and showcase our confidence (arrogance) and charisma. We're told success comes from being seen as a leader and never, ever as a follower. Well, get ready to change that worldview, as research conducted by organizational psychologists Kim Peters and Alex Haslam is about to blow that out of the water.
"Without followership, leadership is nothing."
Writing for Harvard Business Review, the researchers state, "Leaders are only ever as effective as their ability to engage followers. Without followership, leadership is nothing ... [it] is a process that emerges from a relationship between leaders and followers, who are bound together by their understanding that they are members of the same social group. People will be more effective leaders when their behaviors indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us, by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than own personal interests."
In essence, being a good leader is ensuring that you're being seen as a good follower -- "as someone who is willing to work within the group and on its behalf," as the authors write. It's being seen as "one of us" (not "one of them").
In an effort to test out this idea, Peters and Haslam conducted a longitudinal study involving 218 male Royal Marines recruits, tracking their self-identification as leaders and followers during an intense, 32-week infantry training that prepared them for warfare.
The researchers examined whether the capacity of these Marines to be seen as displaying leadership by their peers was associated with their tendency to see themselves as natural leaders or as followers (who were more concerned with getting things done than getting their own way).
What did they discover? You guessed it.
"Recruits who considered themselves to be natural leaders were not able to convince their peers that this was the case," state the authors. "Instead, it was the recruits who saw themselves (and were seen by commanders) as followers who ultimately emerged as leaders," state the authors.
Those aspiring to be good leaders are well served by first striving to follow.
Traits of great followers.
Quite simply, if you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower. Where followership is a failure, you'll see problems manifest themselves in poor performance, terrible morale, and unhappy customers.
How do you spot a good follower in action? I suggest they display these key attributes:
Good followers respect their duty to be loyal to their organizations, especially when problems arise or changes take place. But loyalty doesn't imply subservience; truly loyal followers know their obligation is to the purpose and cause of the organization, not any given leader or for political reasons. Disloyal followers, on the other hand, inevitably are a source of frustration for managers and co-workers alike. They create friction between team members, gossip, put in the minimum effort, and compromise the achievement of goals.
A strong work ethic is foundational for good followers. They are diligent, self-motivated, and committed to their work and the mission. While the responsibility for setting the right conditions falls on leadership, followers still are held accountable for producing excellence and high performance. There is no such thing as a bad employee who is a good follower.
Good followers are continually learning and updating their skills and abilities. And because leaders see their commitment and loyalty, they will readily use followers to the best of their strengths and abilities and invest in their development.
We're all familiar with the benefits of working for a servant-leader. Equally important is being a "servant-follower" in respect to supporting the needs of the organization and those loyal to the organization, especially your servant-leader boss. Servant-followers are keenly intuitive and self-aware -- observing what needs to be done before being asked and gladly contributing to accomplishing team goals without complaining. And before you jump to conclusions, servant-followers aren't doormats or "yes" people; they have high standards and hold others accountable for doing things the right way. The difference is they don't operate from self-interest but "other-interest" -- shining the spotlight on their peers and making their boss look good.
Good leaders welcome constructive feedback from their team, and good followers give it to them. This is especially true when a leader is breaking some boundary, acting unethically, or not pulling his own weight. Because good followers are people of integrity and honesty, friction may happen when a bad boss with opposing values and a personal agenda stands in their way. When faced with this situation, good followers with the best intentions have real courage and the assertiveness to confront wrongdoing and set limits on others.