Monday, March 28, 2016

The Fear and Loathing of Followership

I spoke with a friend recently about his wife’s (Joan’s) consulting business. A solemn look came over his face when I asked about an upcoming community project. “Joan can’t get along with the manager because he won’t listen to her,” he bemoaned. “So she chose not to get involved.” Joan also decided to opt-out of another long-time commitment. The new director “didn’t have any experience in the field,” my friend noted. “He’s a super nice guy, but just doesn’t know what he’s doing. Joan has no patience for that.”

I acted surprised, as I knew how much Joan relished working on these two projects. My friend responded, “Joan knows more than the people leading the projects. She wants to be in charge. She just can’t step back, relax, and participate.” 

In other words, Joan does not like to be viewed as someone with lesser experience. She doesn’t like being a follower. She believes her talent and expertise merit greater consideration. And she’s not alone.

I realized I also had been a poor follower. I envisioned leadership and followership as polar opposites. Leaders exerted control over passive followers. Like Joan, I saw being a follower as a secondary position, a temporary resting place until I became a leader.  

That is, I saw myself as a leader and only begrudgingly as a follower. I believed I could do better as a leader. I waited impatiently until the powers that be realized that I merited a greater role. I also blanched at the prospect of receiving constructive criticism. I was headstrong, cynical, hypercritical, and adversarial.

For people like Joan and me, being a follower has meant second-class status we must tolerate. And that approach rarely endears you to your supervisor, much less your peers. As I’ve learned, leaders need individuals who want to be outstanding followers. 

The news is not all bad, as I also can see how I’ve excelled as a follower. I’ll expand on the concept of effective followership in an upcoming blog post on the topic.  

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