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Leadership Influence: Work on Your Followership

Everyone likes to talk about leadership – we are culturally conditioned to view success as a progression through leadership positions. But there is far less attention to what it takes to be a good follower. I believe part of the reason we’re reluctant to talk about followership is that too often the concept is couched in negative terms like meekness or passivity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s take Eric Fisher, an offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs. Fisher is a 6’7”, 300-pound behemoth of a man drafted first by the Chiefs in the 2013 NFL draft. Fisher played in the 2018 Pro Bowl and was a member of the 2020 Super Bowl championship Chiefs. There’s nothing meek or passive about Eric Fisher.

Fisher is known for his individual competence and toughness, but his importance and value to the Chiefs is in his traits as an effective team member and follower. When the Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes calls a play, Fisher is committed to running it, without reservation. And when a play breaks down, Fisher scans the field for an opportunity to help his team and keeps going until the whistle is blown. Mahomes is recognized as the team leader, but without Fisher there is no Mahomes.

Just to be clear, followership isn’t simply doing what you are told. Followership is the measure of a person’s character and the degree to which they engage their creative problem-solving skills to support the overarching mission and values of the team. A great follower does their job well but also takes personal responsibility for the mission, and acts proactively toward the success of the team and mission.

Followership is about commitment to something beyond self. Commitment to the mission. Commitment to the team. Commitment to team decisions. It means setting aside your personal agenda and putting the team and mission first.

Why does all this matter? Teams that are weak on followership don’t get much done, and what does get done isn’t what really needs to get done. This brings me to the topic of engagement. Followership and engagement are two sides of the same coin. Followership is at the core of what it means to be a good team player, someone who is committed to the mission and actively engaged in the success of that mission.

When it comes to followership and engagement, I believe team members can be identified and sorted into one of four groups:

Passive Resisters

(No commitment, no discretionary effort, actively disengaged)

These are actively disengaged people. They do what they are told, but often drag their feet and must be pushed hard to act. They are not self-starters nor are they pro-active. The are resisters, not followers, and may at times even work to subvert the mission.

Dependable Implementers

(Low commitment, low discretionary effort, disengaged)

These are reliable team members who will take instruction and execute the plan. For this reason, they appear to be actively engaged, but they are not. What’s missing is their discretionary effort and creative problem-solving skills. They follow, but only from a safe distance. They are reluctant to take personal responsibility for the success of the mission, especially when success requires resourcefulness, ingenuity and persistence.

Individual Contributor

(Low commitment, high discretionary effort, disengaged)

This group is aggressive and quick to engage their creative problem-solving skills. For this reason, they are frequently misidentified as the most engaged people on the team. They are not. They are full of ideas but only act in support of the mission if the mission is aligned with their personal agenda. They are always seeking “what’s in it for me?” They are fair-weather followers. For this reason, they can generate lots of activity but little that supports the team, and often act in ways that undermine the mission and the team.

Engaged Partners

(High commitment, high discretionary effort, actively engaged)

An engaged partner is characterized as the perfect follower and team player. They are proactive problem solvers, competent, act with a sense of urgency, and are engaged in the team mission. What distinguishes these team members from the others is total commitment to the mission and values of the team. They are quick to speak up and share their ideas and concerns, but when a decision is made, they commit 100%. They are the ultimate followers. They are also the ultimate leaders.

It is this last group of actively engaged partners that really exemplify this quote from Truett Cathy, "To excel at leadership you must first master followership."

You can build an average team with the first three categories. But to build a championship team, you need engaged partners who excel in the area of followership. Effective leaders understand this, and they work tirelessly to create the right culture, hire the right people and coach for development. They also model the way by practicing followership, putting the mission first and acting selflessly toward the success of the team.

So, how are you doing in the area of followership?

You may also be interested in reading the 12 Behaviors of an Actively Engaged Person.


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