Followers First

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Monday, August 15, 2022
By Shahnaz Pohowala
Photo by iStock/kosmos111
Is higher education doing a disservice to students by making them leaders before they become good followers?
  • Higher education curricula mainly focus on the more widely known tenets of leadership. But a good leader must be a good follower first. That’s an important lesson schools should be teaching their students.
  • Effective followers know how to execute the job; they consistently display self-discipline, competence, commitment, and courage.
  • Good followers are responsible for 80 percent of the success—or failure—of a business.

Today, leadership is a popular topic with everyone from educators to employers to parents to students. While many people want to be leaders, not everyone understands the nuances of leadership or the steps needed to achieve it.

The most commonly understood and desirable facets of leadership are “being the boss,” “being first,” and “being in charge.” Leaders are considered disruptors, risk takers, and decision makers. But these traits are just the tip of the leadership iceberg.

When students are encouraged to develop these facets of leadership, it sets expectations of taking a Concorde flight directly from the classroom to the boardroom. But in all likelihood, they will be expected to display a totally different set of skills during their early careers, including the ability to execute—to roll up their sleeves and do the job, not just oversee it.

In their heads, many young graduates believe that if they are not among the leaders on the fast track, they are relegated to the rank of followers—a setback they are ill-equipped to handle. All too soon, a cycle of disillusionment and disengagement sets in. I know of someone who quit his first job within 10 months of joining a company because he wasn’t promoted from assistant branch manager to branch manager.

What Is a Follower?

In my opinion, the term “follower” is a misnomer and gives the impression of someone who is the opposite of a leader. The Webster dictionary defines a follower as someone who is in the service of another, who follows the opinions or teachings of another, or who imitates another. By inference, followers are perceived as passive yes-men who unquestioningly follow their leaders, have no opinions of their own, and need to be constantly directed and supervised. But good followership is none of the above.

In the 1980s, Robert Kelley, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, expounded on the theory of followership in management and the importance of followers in organizational effectiveness. His research suggests that leaders are only as good as their followers and that followers have an equal role in the leader-follower relationship. In a 1988 article in Harvard Business Review that still holds true, Kelley wrote that “followership dominates our lives and organizations, but not our thinking, because our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and the importance of the follower.”

Paradoxically, one of the foremost traits of good followership is the ability to think and act independently.

So, what are the qualities of good followers? There are four:

Self-management. Paradoxically, one of the foremost traits of good followership is the ability to think and act independently. Followers are aware of and actively fulfill their responsibilities toward self, family, workplace, and community. They take responsibility for their actions and deploy sustainable practices in all they do. They are confident about their strengths and will gladly dive in where they can contribute positively. At the same time, they are cognizant of their weak areas and have no hesitation in seeking guidance and feedback from more competent colleagues. Being authentic and self-disciplined, they don’t need close supervision.

Commitment. Good followers are sincere and passionate about what they do. Whether they are working for an organization, a cause, or a principle, they relentlessly strive to keep adding value. They set high standards of performance for themselves and others, and they are proud advocates and ambassadors for their organizations. For them, the interests of their customers are paramount.

Competence and focus. Effective followers know their jobs and take pride in doing them well. They keep building on their knowledge and skills to align with the evolving needs of their organizations and roles. They have listening and learning mindsets, and they respect skills and opinions different from their own. They mindfully choose what to follow and use it to enhance their own learning.

Courage. Effective followers show courage, not by insisting they are always right, but by not fearing to be wrong. They are open to new mental models and intelligent debates. They have high levels of personal integrity and the conviction to make honest, even unpopular, assessments without fear or favor. They may sometimes get into trouble for telling it like it is—and might even apologize for their words—but they will not bow under pressure if they are confident of their stand.

The Importance of Followers

As we can see, the traits of good followership are as nuanced as those of leadership. In fact, the qualities of good followership are integral to good leadership, too—and, in fact, to all aspects of a responsible, fulfilling life.

Few people understand that to be good leaders, they must first be good followers. In fact, good leaders know how to turn themselves into followers when in the company of people with diverse skills and sensibilities. They recognize that they cannot possibly master everything, and that there are areas where they can learn from others.

The qualities of good followership are integral to good leadership—and, in fact, to all aspects of a responsible, fulfilling life.

As organizations and workforces become increasingly flat and autonomous, the role of good followers cannot be overemphasized. These traits become even more imperative in entrepreneurial enterprises and lean startups, where each member of the team is expected to bring in a particular expertise and function like an intrapreneur.

I recall a time when a relative rookie was asked to temporarily and single-handedly manage a function after the person in charge of that area suddenly resigned. By her sheer drive and passion, she managed to turn a noncore “support” department into a key, high-revenue-earning part of the business. She was a follower who assumed a leadership role by displaying the above-mentioned qualities of followership.

‘Build Character First’

In Kelley’s 1992 book The Power of Followership, he examines the topic even further. In it, he states that leadership impacts the success (or failure) of an organization by 20 percent, whereas followership can impact it by 80 percent. That’s a powerful reason for business schools to sensitize students to the concepts, qualities, and practice of good followership.

While many institutions offer discussions and courses that center around leadership skills, I have yet to see any meaningful discourse on followership. Students must know that followership and leadership complement each other and that being a good follower is no less important than being a good leader.

To educators, I would say: Build character in your students first. Help them develop their values and social consciences before showing them how to become leaders. These qualities not only will enable them to progress professionally, but also will help them develop a deeper understanding of themselves and stronger connections with others. Teachers have the power and the responsibility to channel students’ talent and energy in ways that enable students to achieve a better future for themselves and contribute to the larger good.

To students, I would quote Shakespeare’s famous line, and say: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” If you learn to be good followers—that is, if you are independent thinkers, passionate about your work, committed to doing it well, and courageous about learning from others—you are poised to become the most authentic and effective leaders of tomorrow.

Shahnaz Pohowala
General Manager of Accreditations, S.P. Mandali’s Prin. L.N. Welingkar Institute of Management Development & Research
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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