Friday, February 6, 2015

“Followership” – The Flipside of Leadership?

Followership is Leadership - Are you up for the challenge?

The Follower Stigma
I’m intrigued by the statement “Followership is leadership” because I think that there is a stigma associated with the term “follower.”

“Followership” is sometimes defined as a negative and demeaning word like passive, weak, and conforming. I think our culture has in a sense devalued followers. “Always a leader, never a follower!” has gone a long way toward adding to the stigma of being a follower.

For some reason or another it is accepted that there is no leadership without followers, yet followers are very often left out of the leadership equation.

Do we really understand the role of the follower and the importance this role plays in the success or failure of a team or organization? We will better understand the significance of the follower role when there is more emphasis put on this topic when teaching leadership. Maybe we should be teaching more emphasis on the art of followership rather than leadership in our L-180 and L-280 courses. I know L-380 has some discussion about followership. But is that enough?

I think followership is rarely discussed when organizations seek to better themselves. Instead we turn the focus to developing leadership skills. Much attention is paid to what makes a leader successful because the thinking is that as the leader succeeds so does the organization. However, this view ignores the fact that leaders need followers to accomplish their goals.

The followers make or break the leader! The leader can set high standards, and provide motivation, energy, drive, and direction. However, it is the followers that carry out that intent. Without a strong commitment from the follower there is no leader success.

Being Courageous
The statement of “leading when it’s easy” is true. Everyone can lead when things are going well. True leadership comes when things are not going so well. To me this is when the followers need to step up. Most of the time in these situations the mind and body follows the path of least resistance. So we accept the easy wrong versus the hard right.

As I think of all the tragedy we have had in the fire culture, I truly believe followership could have saved some lives. One of the most important characteristics of an effective follower may be the willingness to tell the truth. As the quantity of available information has increased exponentially, it has become imperative that followers provide truthful information to their leaders.

Good followers speak up even to the point of disagreeing with their leaders. The truth is that the follower who is encouraged to and is willing to speak out shows what kind of leadership we the fire culture should be instituting. Not only is it important for our organization to know what followers think, but leaders need to respect followers who will speak up and share their points of view rather than withhold information.

It’s interesting as I work to bring together agency line officers and incident management teams that both are looking for followership as part of leadership. The line officer is looking to lean on the IMT for their experience and the incident commander looking for the line officer to provide intent. Who is leading and who is following? Both need to be courageous. Without the eyes, ears, minds, and hearts of followers, neither will function effectively. Both can be followers and leaders at the same time.

The follower-leader relationship does not operate in a vacuum. Leaders sometimes function as followers, and followers sometimes function as leaders. As leaders move back and forth between the two roles, this makes it even more imperative that the teaching and learning of followership continue. Followers and leaders are linked together in interrelated roles and are dependent on each other.

Good Followership
How does one become a good follower?

Followership is no less important than leadership. In fact, followership enables good leadership. Moreover, it is likely that all of us will be followers more often than we will be leaders.

The follower makes or breaks the leader! Active followership means the leader’s authority has been accepted which gives legitimacy to the direction and vision of the leader. Good followers should be able to reflect, adapt and take responsibility for their own actions. Once the follower has understood a decision and had their questions answered satisfactorily, they should back the decision of the leader.

Many leaders have realized that developing their follower skills is critical for creating high performance organizations. Motivation is generated internally, and a leader merely taps into the internal power of the follower.

“Being the last shovel on the crew” – it just doesn’t get more important than that. Think of the impact to those who are leading the charge if in fact the fire jumps the line behind that last person. In fact that position is more critical than any other on the crew at that critical time and place. More burden and weight is placed upon that person than any other.

Values and Trust
I have been amazed over the past couple of years by the amount of time in discussion on “values.”

Values are important in determining follower preferences for different types of leaders. Follower’s values, in addition to other personal characteristics, can influence both their own effectiveness and the climate in which they work.

When a leader communicates trust and respect for the values of the followers, the motivation of the followers takes over and drives them to succeed. A key to motivating followers is the concept of having them realize how important their function is in a broad sense.

While organizations continue to devote time and money to the development of leadership, followership is what enables that leadership the opportunity to succeed. We need to be spending more time and effort on the real impact of followership on leadership.

As a follower I most often use the advice from a bison: stand your ground, have a tough hide, keep moving on, have a strong spirit, then let the chips fall where they may!

Rowdy Muir
(Photo credit: Rowdy Muir)
About the Author: Rowdy Muir is the U.S. Forest Service Flaming Gorge District Ranger, L-380 Lead Instructor, and former Type 1 Incident Commander.

We thank Rowdy for his regular blog contributions and taking the challenge to share his thoughts on followership with us. All expressions are those of the author.

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