Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Courtesy of our partners at Deakin University, Australia
One element of leadership that’s rarely talked about is followers – it’s tough to lead without them!
Now, we’re not talking about the millions of followers following Instagram influencers, but the followership displayed by high performing teams. And it may surprise you to discover that many of the qualities of good followership are the same as those required for leadership.
What is followership?
In its most basic form, followership describes the behaviours of subordinates – the leader’s team members. In the same way that effective leadership is less about command and control and more about support and deliverables, effective followership is less about following instructions and more about making a valuable contribution.
One of history’s most famous followers was Thomas Jefferson. Now considered one of the founding fathers of the United States, he initially was a junior member of the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was assigned the task of writing the historical document by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. It wasn’t until eight years after the Declaration of Independence was signed that his role was revealed.
There are two particularly interesting things about Thomas Jefferson as a follower. Firstly, he thought that John Adams should be the one to write the declaration, but Adams exemplified the leader-follower exchange by insisting that Jefferson was the best person for the job. Secondly, Jefferson went on to become the third President of the United States of America – one of the most senior leadership roles in the world.
What are the characteristics of effective followership?
There’s a great deal of crossover between leadership skills and the skills required for good followership. Five of the most important are commitment, communication, collaboration, credibility and competence. Let’s take a look at each of these qualities in more detail.
Effective leaders display high levels of commitment – to themselves, to others, to their organisation, to the truth and to leadership itself. Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes is a prime example of commitment in practice. Obviously, he was committed to the success of his start-up, which listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2015. But since then he’s shown a massive commitment to sustainable practices and even a commitment to himself and others to be more human.
Commitment is particularly important to the servant leadership style, where leaders prioritise their focus on followers above all else – including organisational concerns. So, to be effective in achieving organisational goals, these leaders depend on their followers’ commitment to organisational concerns. Success depends on a two-way exchange of commitment, highlighting the importance of commitment as both a followership and leadership skill.
Warren Buffet is known for telling business graduates that their qualifications will only get them so far in their career – real success depends on effective communication skills. In both leadership and followership, this often means listening more and speaking less. By listening attentively, followers can better support their co-workers in achieving strategic goals. Likewise, with leaders, after listening effectively, followers can offer generous and honest feedback that improves both leadership and organisational outcomes.
Warren Buffet is also famous for choosing something carefully and sticking with it. In 1979 he recruited Lou Simpson to help run his company, Geico. It began a long relationship of leader-follower exchange that only changed slightly when Simpson retired from Geico, 31 years later in 2010.
Buffet wrote in his annual report that year that, "Lou has never been one to advertise his talents. But I will: Simply put, Lou is one of the investment greats. We will miss him.”
The New York Times also described Simpson as disarmingly honest and someone who spoke with simple language about investments. No doubt, his compelling communication abilities contributed to both his followership and leadership skills over those three decades.
While it’s possible to be a leader with only one follower, it’s more common to lead a team. That’s because, even with only one follower, effective leadership and real followership will inspire more followers to join.
The first follower helps to highlight the leadership skills of the leader, then as they discuss them with their colleagues and networks, they attract more followers. This is the principle of the first follower, made famous by Derek Sivers – and a very entertaining video from a music festival that perfectly portrays this idea.
While team building in an organisation is a bit different from the snowball effect of a daggy dance-off, the value of collaboration can’t be understated. As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one. And the power of collaboration increases with every additional follower.
In 2018, Cameron Kasky and his classmates displayed remarkable leadership skills – four days after a former student killed 17 students and wounded 17 more at their school. Kasky and his fellow students announced the March For Our Lives protest to call for tighter gun controls in the US. Just one month later, up to 800,000 followers rallied in Washington DC, with more congregating at 880 sibling sites across the country.
In addition to the lived experience of gun violence, Kasky and his friends had credibility. By organising and attending the protest rallies, their followers too displayed credibility.
Credibility is about walking the talk – ensuring your actions align with your words. As a leader, there’s no point telling team members to work towards the organisation’s strategy if you’re not willing to do the same. As a follower, there’s no point agreeing with that leader and then doing something completely different when you’re out of earshot.
The best leaders are those on the path to mastery. They excel in self-reflection to identify their weaknesses, then they take action to address those weaknesses through personal development. Competence is a leadership skill acquired through education, experience and a little bit of humility.
Competence in followership is equally essential. Once you achieve competence in your role, you’ll find that you have more time to develop more innovative solutions and to support leaders and other team members.
You can increase your competence as both a leader and a follower with Deakin’s Master of Leadership. In addition to identifying and analysing key leadership challenges in your workplace, you’ll build your skills and competence to deliver positive change – whatever role you’re in.