If you aspire to hold a leadership role one day, you first need to learn how to be a great follower. Today, many organizations are pushing back on leadership-centric structures and instead relying on team-centered approaches—which depend on active followership to achieve organizational goals. However, little emphasis has been placed on how to develop strong followership skills.
What is followership?
Followers use different styles, behaviors, and skills to interact with managers and leaders. On a foundational level, followership can either be passive or active. There are many reasons why someone might engage in passive followership—for example, for self-protection from authoritative leadership. While this behavior is appropriate in certain situations—such as crisis situations where command and control is essential—passive followers miss out on the opportunity for self-development and influence.
Active followership, on the other hand, engages in a variety of behaviors that impact both leadership and an organization’s mission and goals. Active followers are exemplary and courageous followers, and are not deterred by power. Typically, active followers engage in the following three behaviors.
1. They take responsibility and initiative
Active followers take initiative and assume responsibility to understand and participate in the direction and goals of their organizations. Put another way, they raise their hands to take on challenges. Not only do they assume responsibility for their organizations, but they also take responsibility for their own actions. This level of independence, self-awareness, and self-regulation requires a sense of emotional intelligence, which can be developed through self-reflection. Armed with passion, active followers confidently identify inefficiencies within companies and generate solution-oriented ideas to improve operations. When assuming responsibility for quality improvement, followers realize that by working together with leadership, better solutions and results can be achieved.
Tips to develop this behavior
In your current role, think about ways you can get involved in the leadership process, be present at the decision-making table and engage in problem solving, and actively offer solutions you believe will enhance your team or organization. Research shows that these actions and behaviors have a positive impact on one’s job performance.
Maybe you haven’t been invited to the decision-making table, but you’re eager to demonstrate your responsibility and initiative as a follower. Identify problems and generate solutions to present to your supervisor. Consider asking your supervisor to be in the room when problems are being solved. If the idea of this makes you nervous, write down what you’d like to say in advance, then role play with a co-worker, partner, or friend. This will give you both the courage and confidence to make the ask, demonstrate initiative, and articulate your eagerness to assume wider responsibility. By doing so, you may even impact the culture where followers are encouraged to engage in problem solving beyond the walls of their units and impact the organization at a larger scale.
2. They champion the mission
Active followers see their actions as an extension of their leaders and take responsibility for helping their leaders (and their organizations) succeed in their missions, agendas, and goals. This active participation in the mission requires followers to think about how their actions align or impact organizations’ missions. It also requires followers to understand their leaders’ goals, channel their vision, continually connect their actions with those goals, and offer hypotheses on how they can help further the mission. By connecting your actions to the mission, you can critically think and anticipate problems that may arise and share potential opportunities with leadership.
Tips to develop this behavior
Active followers know their leaders’ agendas and are committed to help drive them forward. If you don’t know your leader’s agenda, just ask! This simple act of engagement demonstrates your desire to participate in tasks that have measurable impact on organizational goals. By aligning yourself with leadership and your organization’s agenda, you devote greater energy and investment in the process. When you invest energy and time in your leader’s agenda, you also see the outcomes as an extension of your work and not just the responsibility of the leader.
3. They know when to challenge or support leadership
As a follower, you can demonstrate support for leadership by showing similar levels of dedication to the purpose and mission at hand. The ability to support a leader is a unique task that requires cooperation and collaboration. Nobody wants to work with someone who’s constantly combative or self-centered. It’s important to remain cooperative and collaborative in your actions to support your organization’s purpose and vision, even if you aren’t in full agreement. This is where emotional intelligence, self-awareness, regulation play key roles.
While support is an important role of an active follower, so is challenging leadership when you notice inconsistency in leaders’ words and actions. While leaders should hold themselves accountable, you have the opportunity as a courageous follower to help leaders walk the walk and confront them when their actions don’t line up with their words. Constructive feedback is essential. Don’t assume that the role of the follower is to be a “yes person” 24/7. Leaders need people they trust to share constructive feedback and tell them honestly and gently when something is a bad idea.
Tips to develop this behavior
Being a leader doesn’t mean you feel confident about decisions 100 percent of the time. That’s where you as an active follower come in. Do you feel your leader made a hard but good decision? Tell them! Don’t be afraid to give sincere positive feedback. Perhaps your affirmation is what seals the deal for an initiative or decision to move forward. Also, don’t be afraid to show similar levels of dedication as leadership. By demonstrating that you believe in your organization’s mission and are collaborative and cooperative, you build trust and influence among stakeholders within your company.
Knowing when to challenge a leader can be more difficult, especially if you’ve never done it before. Speaking up for your convictions, especially if the topic relates to ethics or morals, is important. You might not be the only person who sees red flags in the situation, but you might be the only one courageous enough to voice your concern. Make sure you bridge the gap with empathy and utilize emotional intelligence. Ask yourself, “How would I want to hear this constructive feedback? What would make me more receptive? What would make me resistant?”
Even harder yet is determining when it’s time to walk away from a toxic situation. Your emotional health and well-being are the most important. A courageous follower is prepared to act and walk away from a situation that is unredeemable and unhealthy.
A final note
The behaviors you decide to embody as a follower are consequential to both your organization and your career. Think about your first interactions with leadership and how those experiences shaped your followership style and behavior to be either passive or active.
Active followers are empowered, take initiative, partner with leaders to solve problems, support leadership vision, and, when appropriate, challenge leadership with the goal of improving vision and direction. Followership behavior has the power to influence leadership style, which in turn impacts managerial and subordinates’ relationships, which all impacts organizational goals and missions. This broad scope of impact puts followers in a powerful position.
I encourage you to embrace the idea that we’re all followers and explore the impact the follower role has on yourself, leadership, and your organization—and engage in critical reflection and self-assessment to further develop active followership. By doing so, you can increase influence, be seen as a trusted partner, and set yourself up to advance to future leadership roles that value followership and leverage a team of followers.
- The end of leadership: Exemplary leadership is impossible without the full inclusion, initiatives, and cooperation of followers (Organizational Dynamics) by Warren Bennis.
- In Praise of Followership Style Assessments (Journal of Leadership Studies) by Ira Chalef.
- The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow, and followers who lead themselves (Broadway Business) by Robert E. Kelley.
- Followership theory: A review and research agenda (The Leadership Quarterly) by M. Uhl-Bien, R.E. Riggio, K.B. Lowe, and M.K. Carsten.
Meagan Solloway works as the chief operations manager for the dean’s office at the University of North Carolina Adams School of Dentistry. She received her B.A. from Huntington University and is studying organizational leadership and learning at George Washington University.