Wait…Being a good follower matters?

stepWhy is followership the first step to leadership? This is one of the main questions that I have been asking. Don’t all good leaders struggle to follow? I thought that was what made them able to start out on their own, their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

What I have begun to grapple with is what makes it so important. Every leader is a follower, and every leader has followers. One of the best ways you can lead is to be an example of followership to those who follow you. They will see you follow, make no mistake about it, they are watching.

First, let me mention that every leader is also a follower. Let’s look broadly, the majority of those leading others are in, what many call, middle management. This means that they are between subordinates and supervisors. There are those few that seem to be leading everything with out following anyone – we call them CEO, President or Owner. These men and women follow as well, we just do not see it as clearly. They have boards, committees and other groups that they must submit to. Take Congress for instance, the President has the ability to veto there decision, however they have the ability to veto his veto. It provides checks and balances.

No matter the role or title there is always someone or something that you will follow, someone you are accountable to for responsibility. A leader always has to follow certain rules, laws and parameters. In following them they are responsible to them and are held accountable to them. Sadly, this has been seen in our news all to often recently in the corporate and religious worlds of our society today.

Once the realization of every leader follows in some respect it is easier to see how valuable followership is. The level of effective followership of a leader will directly reflect the effectiveness of the followership seen under that leader by his followers. The example set in culture, attitude, work ethic, values, and followership are all mimicked by those under your leadership.

I have started to see it’s importance but why is it he first step to leadership? I have come to three conclusions that seem to point to the reason for it being a first step.

  • One. Occupational Proficiency. While such characteristics of leadership as integrity, boldness, humility, and creativity are consistent across occupational lines there is one that changes from field to field. All leaders need to learn the hard skills associated with their job and the jobs of their people, but this looks very different from job to job. True leaders can lead in any environment as long as they take the time to learn the hard skills associated with the new environment. In learning these new skills a leader must submit himself to learning what he needs to know in order to lead effectively.

While I was a Corporal in the Marine Corps we were assigned a new Platoon Commander who had just finished school and we were his first platoon of Marines. He made the best move he could have on his first day. He stood before us in formation and told us for him to lead us effectively he needed to understand what we did. He spent the next month learning the jobs of his Marines by asking us and learning from us. The respect that he gained from our platoon during that time was significant. I will never forget the lesson I learned from him during that month.

  • Two. Effective Change. It is easy for any critic to look in from the outside and tell you what needs to change. The far more difficult action is to effect that change in a sustainable way. This is done first by learning and operating within the current model and process. For a leader to create positive change he must first learn what the reasons are for the way things are done. Then understand how those processes work. After the leader has a solid understanding of the goals that need to be achieved and the processes of which are being used to achieve them can they begin to change the processes. For the change to be sustainable and efficient the leader must understand what happens and then implement the correction necessary to effect them in a positive way.

After the first month of my Platoon Commander learning our jobs and our specialties, he began learning how we trained to learn more and become more proficient. In time he was then able to make some changes that improved our way of training therefore increasing our overall ability to perform. These changes would have either been blind changes to things that he did not understand or accurate but reluctantly accepted without the time he spent to understand the current model and process, instead the result was willingness to see change take place. The willingness of the Marines came form their confidence that he understood the current accurately to envision what positive change would look like.

  • Three. Culture and Climate. The last conclusion I came to was that leaders must follow first to understand the culture and climate of the organization before they can operate effectively. The culture can be clearly seen in the rules and regulations that are in place within the organization. If a leader wants to effect change or see promotion he must learn the culture of what is and is not acceptable with in the organization. This is learned through following.

An organization will have values that they operate by. Some communicate those values very openly and abide by them, some do not communicate them at all, while still others communicate one set of values and operate by another. A leader must assess the values and the mission of the organization and then be sure operate with them.

My Platoon Commander started this learning when he went through Officer Candidate School which is the boot camp for officers. During his time there he learned the rank structure, the Code of Military Justice and the mission of the Marine Corps. As he took leadership of his first platoon he had to then learn the specific values and mission of this particular unit and chain of command. He had to take these into account as he learned the jobs of his Marines and then again as he looked to effect change to accomplish the mission more efficiently. With out understand the culture and climate of the organization a leader will face tension from both subordinates and supervisors.

Followership has to come before leadership. If it does not any leader will find added obstacles as they attempt to lead. Those aspiring to lead must first follow to be sure they are proficient in the hard skills, are in a position to cultivate positive change, and understand the organization’s culture and climate.


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