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followership speaking truth to powerYou are my follower.”

Both his tone and inflection caught me off guard. I hadn’t expected such vehemence. Or that kind of mindset.

In my mind, we had simply “connected” via social media.

Yes, I had clicked a button labeled “follow” on his page several months earlier. In doing so, I committed to learning more about him, and to sharing info, too.

But in my mind, I hadn’t committed to being his follower, “an adherent or devotee of a particular person, cause, or activity.” 

As he was traveling and was in my corner of the world, we’d agreed to meet over coffee and add a face-to-face element to our connection. Hence, this exchange.

“That’s an interesting perspective. Could it also be said that you’re my follower? Something reciprocal?”

“No, I connected with you first. I took the lead, you followed.”

Given my fascination with power and stereotypes, I found his comment insightful…off-putting…and outdated.

Leadership is so much more than a dominant leader and a subordinate follower. The rank, authority, and blind obedience thing is so one-way, so ego-based.

Leadership is so much more than a dominant leader and a subordinate follower. Click To Tweet

It’s an outlook that’s also out of step with the reality of today’s flatter, more technologically driven workplaces. As Carnegie Mellon professor Robert Kelley notes,

“…most of us are more often followers than leaders. Even when we have subordinates, we still have bosses…so 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.”

Deciding to be a follower is a conscious choice, one rooted in managing from the mind and leading from the heart. And, even if a boss/employee relationship does exist, taking orders and direction doesn’t automatically make someone a follower.

Kelley goes on to describe effective followers as being competent, courageous, honest, credible, self-directed, self-motivated, and risk-takers.

Aren’t leaders all those things, too?

Leadership and followership are the two sides of the same coin. One can’t exist without the other, and one isn’t better than the other.

Both are intentional attitudes that require us to be self-aware and to self-regulate. Both roles have many things in common.

12 things leadership and followership have in common

  1. Both require us to stand up for what we believe and stand up to those who would hold us back.
  2. Neither is a status to be entered into blindly, passively, or indifferently.
  3. Neither condition is a job title. They’re roles we willingly choose to fill.
  4. Both come fully loaded with negative stereotypes and connotations to be overcome and changed
  5. In either leading or following, we can expect days where our best efforts won’t be enough and will be under-appreciated and under-valued.
  6. Both require fluidity of thought and a willingness to practice reciprocity as we shift between filling both roles.
  7. Both require equal paradoxical focus on results and relationships, structure and consideration, and individual and team.
  8. The best of both practitioners intuitively understand that the less ego that’s involved the better.
  9. Both roles recognize the value of moral courage.
  10.  Neither status is hung up on labels or categories of who should or shouldn’t take the initiative to make things so. They just do it.
  11.  Both practice critical thinking as well as active participation and engagement.
  12.  Leading and following are both an art and a science in which we use our heads to manage and our hearts to lead.

In effective leadership and followership, there’s no keeping score about who went first.

“Increasingly, followers think of themselves as free agents, not as dependent underlings.” ~Barbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government

What’s your view on being a leader and a follower?

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