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Followership: How to Master an Underrated Career Skill

If you run an Amazon search of “leadership,” you’ll get over 60,000 book titles. If you do the same thing for “followership,” you’ll get 123. Clearly, followership is not an attractive topic. We’d rather think of ourselves more as leaders than followers. But it’s worth recognizing that, with a few exceptions, great leaders today and throughout history were first great followers. And, paradoxically, people who master the art of followership are often propelled into leadership positions before those who refuse to follow.

Simply put, followership is the ability to make oneself highly valuable to those who are in charge. And it's tricky business! Unlike leaders, who have the advantage of their job titles to help them get things done, followers must use a variety of tools to be effective—assertiveness, humility, competence, and charisma, to name a few. What’s more, followers must figure out how to support leaders they don’t always agree with.

Hard as it may be, there are many who practice followership with excellence. I think great followers share some common behaviors. For example, they...

Excel at assignments that are “beneath” them: Great followers recognize that the way to get better work is to excel at current work. My friend’s first job, for example, was as an analyst at a consulting firm. He thought it was prestigious until he got his first assignment, which was to organize his manager’s binder. There were two ways he could have reacted to this assignment. The first was to say to his manager, “I didn’t go to college for this. Organize your own binder.” The second was to resolve to organize his manager’s binder better than anyone else would have. Fortunately, he chose option two, and was given increasingly better assignments after that.

Recognize they won’t always get credit for their work: Great managers openly give credit where credit is due. Bad managers shamelessly take credit for others’ work. But many managers just forget to give enough credit to their employees. Excellent followers don’t worry about this. They recognize that they are still making themselves more valuable by doing great work, and that over time their body of work will stand on its own.

Work to achieve management’s goals, not execute management’s ideas: Managers love to give their employees specific ideas on which to execute. Great followers do not say “yes” to every idea thrown at them. They evaluate ideas independently, trusting in their own intelligence. If they believe the ideas will help achieve the manager’s goals (say, sales targets), then they embrace them and execute. If not, then they offer other ways to get to the manager’s goals, and logic for why these ways are better.

Are poised and rational in the face of emotional triggers:  Some leaders let their stresses bleed out onto their employees. Often, they act like their employees should be just as stressed as they are. Good followers don’t play that way. They stay calm and fact-based until the emotional storm passes, and the come out of the crisis even more credible than before.

Know when to zip it and when to speak up: We all know employees who don’t know when to shut up—it’s obvious and it’s painful. But from my experience, employees like that are rare. More common are employees who keep quiet when they should speak up. Burying their heads in the sand keeps them safe for a while, but it ultimately hurts them. So, if you believe you have a great idea, you should say something. Chances are, you’re right.

Master these elements of followership and you will become influential beyond your job title. Before long, you'll become the appointed leader.


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