In response to my post yesterday, soliciting requests for topics to cover, I received an excellent one. One of my readers asked me to cover how to be a better follower – it seems like there’s endless articles, think pieces and op-eds about how to be a better or more effective leader, but a dearth of such writing on following.

The reality is, you’re going to be a follower far more often in your life than you’ll be a leader. My first piece of advice: That’s totally okay. In fact, it would be insane to think otherwise.

No one is a leader 24/7. Even if you’re the CEO of your company, you’re not the CEO of your neighborhood soccer league or your buddy’s weekend barbecue. Sometimes you have to play a role on a team, and you should aim to do that as well as you would aim to lead when it’s your time to do so.

The best leaders come from the best followers. A take-charge personality is great, but nothing is worse than the person who’s constantly trying to take over when they lack expertise, support, or any of the other necessary traits. And a six-person team made of six alpha-types who all want to lead is a recipe for disaster. You end up with six guys who all wanna be Mr. Black. (I’d normally support that reference with a link to the relevant scene from Reservoir Dogs, but I try to keep this blog PG-13. It’s a great movie, go watch it.)

Just as much as good leadership is a skill that takes effort to develop, so is good “followship.” (By the way, I thought I was so clever coming up with that word, but it turns out I’m not the first. Oh well, I’m running with it.)

What does it take to practice good followship? Here are my thoughts:

  1. It’s NOT about blind obedience. It’s about trust – and it takes a lot of it, in both directions. Your leader has to be able to trust you, so you have to always come through, or make sure they know before you don’t. If you can’t complete a task because you need more resources, more time, more knowledge – make sure they know that well in advance of the task’s deadline. If you know that you’ll only make the deadline if everything goes perfectly, then the time to call on your leader is the very first instance where something doesn’t. That’s the way you build trust – if your leader knows “I haven’t heard from Jim on this project, so I know 100% that everything is fine, because I know 100% that if it wasn’t he’d already be on the phone with me,” then you’re being an effective follower.
  2. The “Hit By A Bus” Test. What would happen to your team if you were hit by a bus (Heaven forbid) and could immediately no longer work or even communicate? Did you leave enough documentation for someone else to easily pick up your slack? Were you so on top of your responsibilities that your replacement isn’t starting 12 steps behind? Then you’re doing an awesome job. Way too many people strive to be “irreplaceable.” They want to keep their work a mystery so they can’t be dispensed with. Guess what – everyone is replaceable. All you do by being cagey is separate yourself from your leader and your team.
  3. Timing. Being a good follower means not only following, but making your leader better at leading. That means giving them information in the most effective ways possible. Don’t come to them with every little thing, but don’t hide information either. Create a pattern of regular check-ins, and recognize that they might be more constrained on time than you. Create documentation of your work that they can check when they have time on their schedule, not on yours. They might be pulling some long hours, but if they can read a detailed and accurate report about your work at 11 PM on their own time instead of having to have a 30-minute meeting with you every week, they’ll love you for it. That also ensures that they have the information they need from you neat and organized, instead of having to rely on their memory during hectic and stressful times.
  4. Public praise, private complaints. Don’t undermine. If you have reason to doubt your leader’s decision, approach it privately (and follow step 3). Don’t call your leader out in front of the team and start a whole thing. The majority of the time, their decision might make sense given information they have but you don’t. And even if they’re truly a bad leader or making bad decisions, you still don’t do yourself any favors by being antagonistic publicly. If you’re in a meeting where team input is welcome, then go ahead and ask clarifying questions if you need to. But even then:
  5. Offer solutions & alternatives, not pessimism. If you disagree with a decision, you have an obligation as a good follower to come up with at least one potentially viable alternative before you bring it up. If a plane is hurtling towards the ground and the pilot is desperately but futilely pulling up on the yoke, you’re not helping if you say “that’s not going to work” to the pilot. Unless you have a better suggestion to avert disaster, your comments aren’t helpful. “I think this is a bad idea, and we shouldn’t do it,” needs to be followed up with “I think this alternative will work better to get us to our stated goals. What do you think?” Note that it’s perfectly fine to offer “do nothing” as an alternative – if “nothing” is both possible and a legitimate strategy. Sometimes nothing is not an option, like when the plane is hurtling towards the ground.

Everyone can’t be #1 all the time, and there are going to be times in your life – probably a great many – where you have to be a follower. You’ll improve any team as well as your own life if you’re good at it. Don’t just think of it as some chore you have to complete on your way somewhere else. Think of it as a skill to master. Even if you don’t want to ever be a leader, I’m sure you’d still rather work on teams with less stress and greater efficiency. And if you do want to become a leader, it will be much better for you if you don’t arrive in your leadership role scratching your head at why those you’re leading aren’t good followers. The best leaders teach their followers how to follow well – and how can you teach what you don’t know?

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