Resources: Blog Post

September 15, 2015

Is being a good follower such a negative thing?

Sam Hurwitz

Are you sometimes overwhelmed by yet another article or concept on what it takes to be a successful leader?
When Samantha and Marc Hurwitz of FliP Skills asked if organizations invest in leadership development, it’s no surprise the response from the audience was a resounding, “absolutely.” However, when they asked if organizations invest in followership development, the typical response was, “no.”

If we accept the adage, “Leaders cannot lead without followers,” then by the same token, “Without any followers, leaders have nothing to lead,” right? Which suggests there is a synergetic, collaborative and even interdependent relationship between being a leader and a follower.

It would seem that, in reality, one cannot exist without the other. Both qualities essentially co-exist and together there is potentially no limit to what can be achieved.

Would it be fair then to say that leaders believe they have followers, whereas followers essentially have a choice as to whether or not to follow? And would you agree the traditional differentiation between leadership and followership is normally represented as superior versus subordinate or manager versus employee?

Such a portrayal, however, condones the notion leadership carries a level of superiority and possibly reinforces the viewpoint that being a good follower can take on a negative implication.

So the real opportunity with the Hurwitz’s “followership” development proposal may be whether or not organizations want both leaders and followers to be active or passive, to be participants or observers.

If it’s active, then does it not follow that you want and need everyone to excel? If so, is there really any difference between the core characteristics for being a good leader versus a good follower? I would suggest not — with the emphasis on “core.”
If we take a flat organizational structure as an example, leadership roles will continue to be accountable for setting the vision, establishing the corporate goals and strategies, bringing together individual talents, providing clear direction and ensuring the right tools are available.

However, would it not be to everyone’s advantage to master common capabilities.

For example: clear communication, both written and verbal; accepting ownership for personal and team responsibilities; committing to delivering the results; using discretionary judgment; demonstrating reliability, honesty and personal integrity; being a collaborative and competent team player; showing up with a positive and enthusiastic attitude; and being both open and willing to receive constructive feedback and create innovative solutions.

When you think about it, whether you are a follower or leader, the core competencies may not be that different.

For any employer considering the idea of building a culture where everyone is expected to show up as both the leader or the follower, depending on the situation, then unquestionably it will be mission-critical that everybody learns when to switch roles, how to do so skillfully and how to appreciate the win-win in aligning and accomplishing personal, team and organizational results regardless of title.

There is clearly no room for blind obedience, ego or self-interest in the true duality of leadership and followership.
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the various hypotheses and research material on followership versus leadership that has been around since 1955.

Is it time for your organization’s leadership team to re-examine the concept of superior and subordinate from an entirely different standpoint? Are they prepared to revisit their beliefs behind the role of leadership, management and employee?
To build a truly holistic culture where leadership is expected from everyone — meaning up, down and sideways — perhaps the timing is right to rethink the co-existence of leadership and followership as a key competitive differentiator.

Do you see advantages to being a follower?
Join the conversation on LinkedIn

This commentary first appeared in Canadian HR Reporter. Members can read the accompanying article in SCNetwork’s online library.

Image of Trish Maguire

About the Author

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., which focuses on high-potential leadership development coaching. Trish has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at 

Filed under: culture, followership, leadership, structure, trish maguire Tagged: culture, followership, leadership, structure, trish maguire
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