Lead Forensics


Follow The Leader

02.09.21 Bob Riddler

Ask Google to search for ‘Leadership’ and, in less than a second, you will have nearly 4 billion results to hand explaining every possible aspect of the topic. Perform a similar one-word search for ‘Followership’ and you’ll have to settle for a paltry 2 million results.

At its most basic that suggests there are 2,000 articles on ‘leadership’ for every 1 article on ‘following.’ While I don’t suggest for a minute that this 2000:1 ratio might translate into any real world ratio of leaders: followers, I feel it does illustrate the fact that the art of following is largely ignored in favour of the art of leading.

Aspiring to personal leadership is, of course, a bedrock of a business career. Not once in 30 years of annual appraisals and performance reviews across many countries and cultures has anyone ever said to me, ‘I’m going to improve my following skills,’ or ‘I’m going to learn to follow better.’ Leadership is the goal, the ambition. Success is measured through leadership optics such as ownership, budget size, headcount, title or rank. Following hardly gets a look in.

So, should we all aspire to be personal leaders? Is following something to be ignored or spurned? Is it simply the case that following is a default which doesn’t require thought or attention: if you’re not leading, then, by definition, you must be following?

I would suggest not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that following is a skill in and of itself – one with its own thought process, toolset, objectives and, yes, power. I’d also suggest that we are all followers to some degree or another whether you’re an employee following your CEO, a CEO following your Board, or a Board following your shareholders somebody, somewhere is setting a path or example for you to follow. Isn’t it in our interests to do that well?

So how do we go about being better followers?

Don’t Follow Blindly

Following well is both a strength and a genuine contributor to your organisation. Following blindly (or badly) can be damaging. Blindness comes in several forms, all of which should be recognised and avoided. Look out for these blind-follower behaviours and develop strategies to counter them:

  • Fools rush in: Not taking time to understand the objective. Just because you haven’t set the direction doesn’t mean you don’t have an obligation to understand it and validate it.
  • Complacency is a killer: Assuming everything will be fine. Look at what you’re being asked to do and think what might go wrong. Can you see a contingency or mitigation? No? Then ask the leader for their views.
  • False authority: Assuming they know best: Don’t get dazzled by the leadership title. Remember the Peter Principle. Leaders often find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. Does the leader have a track record of success? Are they new to the job? Have they done this before? Answers to these simple questions will help define your decision to follow or to challenge.
  • Disowning the outcome – passing the buck: Just because the direction was poor and the decision-making was done by someone else, don’t believe that the mucky stuff won’t hit you in the face if you’ve blindly followed direction you knew to be wrong on the assumption someone else would get fired. It all flows downhill and poor leaders are often excellent scapegoaters. Get your defence in early! Own your decision to follow or not.
  • Groupthink – well, everyone else is doing it: Learn to recognise that those closest to you may be exhibiting some of the above behaviours. Don’t get caught in the trap that just because everyone else is following a course of action, it must be fine. Jumping off a cliff still hurts even if everyone else is strapping on their running shoes and measuring the distance to the edge.

Know your Territory

In order to follow well, it’s key to understand your organisation. Recognise its culture and ambitions. Most organisations have a mission statement and company values. Interrogate them and look for evidence of them being adhered to. Follow those leaders who are acting in the closest alignment to the company ethos. Assuming, of course, you both agree with that ethos and can identify leaders who do likewise – if you can’t, it may be time to polish that CV!

Get to know your leader and your leadership team. Know what makes your leaders tick – there’ll for sure be some corporate ambition in there but try to find the personal drivers and compare them to your own. A close alignment here should give you confidence you’re in the right place, following the right people.

Finally, if you’re going to follow someone, know why you’re doing so. Make sure you know where your leader is headed and that you want to go there too.

Find your Line of Sight

One of the key insights an aware follower should have to hand is line of sight between where they are in the business, the actions they are being asked to perform and the connection those actions have to the company’s objectives.

It’s vital that you can connect leader actions and instructions to the objectives of the company. Nobody wants to work on tasks – or follow individuals – that don’t contribute to the success of an organisation. Even the most benign follower still wants to be able to look themselves in the eye and say, ‘I did the right thing.’

If there’s a break in the chain between you and your businesses’ objectives, ask yourself why. If by following the leader your actions don’t directly benefit the company, then ask for justification. If your task cannot be justified in terms of progressing the company towards its goal, perhaps it’s time to stop performing those activities and seek a more meaningful way to contribute. Or a better leader to follow.

Understand your Power

Leaders without followers are either visionaries or fools.

Effective leaders need effective followers. This means the follower has real power. Through their actions they validate the leader’s thoughts and direction. They enable a leader’s strategy and realise the objectives laid out.

But, if the leader’s instruction makes no sense, if you choose NOT to follow, your leader will be forced to reassess. Of course, being deliberately obstructive comes with its own dangers but, in this age of reason and consideration of alternate viewpoints, even the poorest leader will more often than not second-guess themselves when faced with the simple question, ‘Why?’ A widespread decision not to follow can neutralise and highlight poor leadership and draw attention to issues or risks before they fully manifest. Revolt with care and caution, but don’t dismiss it as a strategy when faced with unreasonable or illogical direction.

Nothing says, ‘that’s a stupid idea’ more thoroughly than a refusal to engage.

Remember, there is always strength in numbers – find your fellow travellers and share your thoughts.

Stay Constructive

Create consensus and construct your objections through the prism of your team and try to avoid the ‘awkward’ label. Good leaders will hear your viewpoint and provide reasoned justification and support. Poor leaders will be exposed, thus allowing you to make career choices before investing time and effort in the pursuit of nonsense.

Regardless of your assessment of the merits or otherwise of following an individual or company down a certain road, make sure that your objections stay constructive. Don’t refuse to do a task because it’s stupid; offer to do the task in a way that better contributes. Use the leaders’ fear of rejection (and it’s there, believe me) to encourage a fair hearing and a saving of face through a better course of action.

Leading Thoughts

Following is a key, but largely ignored behaviour. Following in a constructive, considered manner will serve anyone and any organisation well – it will yield better results, a stronger career and, ultimately, demonstrate better behaviours in a team, group or organisation than leadership mandating or followers blindly following will produce in a lifetime.

And all those follower skills are adaptable in some form or another to leadership when that particular calling arrives. And when it does? Well, there are 4 billion articles to review on how to do that properly. One of them must be worth following.

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