Why We Should Focus on Followship Over Leadership

A popular game we played as children was Follow the Leader. It was a game of observation, concentration and attention – heeding the moves and mannerisms of a ‘leader’. This game was about becoming the next leader by being the best follower.

Or there was the game, Simon Says. A challenge to do what someone else led us to do best.

These are two of my earliest encounters of leadership.

I was pondering the distinction we place on leadership – the expectations we have, the judgments we make: We call the role ‘boss’ – and the connotations that come with it are obvious: bossy.

All too often we see the issue of quality management lying in the position of leader.

When you Google the term ‘leadership’ you are thrown up around 765,000,000 results. However, when you Google the term ‘followship’ you are presented with only 161,000. Something appears a little askew! We can’t all be leaders – but we seem fixated with the role. Here are a number of types of leaders:

  • Authentic leadership
  • Distributive leadership
  • Authoritative leadership
  • Dismissive leadership
  • Contributive leadership
  • Assertive leadership

Leadership is defined and examined – with gurus offering courses, books, mentorship, resources, coaching… there are careers built around analysing leadership, referencing leadership, leading leadership! We view leadership as the most important aspect of management. We see it as the means to improved productivity, greater teamwork, corporate growth. It is the panacea for uplift in organisations. And it is also aspirational. There are many, many people who see the ladder not the opportunity.

But… is leadership the most important foundation for improving teamwork and output? I don’t think so. I think we have missed the point – we are lost in the trees without seeing the wood. We have been so myopic in our examination, blinkered. The real focus should be on followship – how do we follow better?

The leader isn’t the key – the leader is just the key-hole.

This simple shift in perception starts to ask more of us – the everyday person, the worker, the volunteer, the colleague. It is our responsibility. The lens is turned back on us: what is expected of us – the individual – to improve the greater good.

How are we developing as followers? How ‘good’ are we as followers? What is quality followship?

How have we been the corruption of success for the vision of a leader?

Squirming? We should be.

To be a leader you need followers. This means trust, loyalty, commitment, selflessness, attentiveness, understanding, positive mental models are required of us – the follower.

We have seen that video of the first follower (below) – how movements are created. The leader isn’t the key – the leader is just the key-hole. The leader offers a vision – but it is up to us – as followers – to unlock the potential of that vision.

For too long, we have judged our bosses – we have poured scorn on them: they expect too much, they are always changing things, they dither and are not forceful enough (against others), they are weak, they are ego-trippers, they are insensitive, they don’t really care, they are too old, they ask a lot of us but give little back, they are ineffectual, they… they… they…

Who would want to be a leader when you get so much negative scrutiny? I mean, just look at our politicians. We jump to conclusions buoyed by our own bias, prejudice, perceptions… formed from sound-bites and negative press. We take to DisgraceBook or some other social commentary – blazing away, berating and demanding.

The Press sell stories, often unscrupulous and inaccurate, based on sound-bites and animosity of people who are not in the position of making decisions.

That’s the real issue – we are not very good at following anymore. We undermine. The tall poppy syndrome – or as The Far Side would have it: the tall necked chicken syndrome.

Our contrivance, lethargy, obstinence are blockers.

You see, It isn’t about getting a new leader – it is about creating a tribe’s positive mental models to be supportive and based on trust.

Fullan states – Leadership is the grain of sand in the oyster, not the pearl. Leaders need to make decisions.

Now, I am not saying we need to be blind-followers. That got a lot of people killed in the last century.

But I do think we need to see some balance – and start to reclaim the awareness that a good leader relies on good followers. And good followers outnumber good leaders – so by developing our capacity for followship, by supporting, trusting and uniting, we will create greater momentum for a community’s benefit – much more than defining, refining and navel-gazing at the myriad of leadership “styles”.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Kmeron.

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