Leadership gets a lot of attention in the corporate world. Training and coaching often focuses on it, and no one wants to tell their boss, “I just want to be the best follower I can be.”
“To get ahead, you must aspire to lead.” That’s the conventional wisdom we all hear.
But the majority of the workforce is by definition made up of followers. And, though often overlooked, the skills of followership can be just as crucial to being an invaluable employee as those of leadership. In fact, at the beginning of careers, it might be more important to focus on learning to be a good follower. If young or midlevel professionals set out to be a leader without first understanding what it means to follow, they’ll be more likely to fail.
Developing abilities as a follower sets the stage for leadership: knowing how to work well in a team, to strike a balance between support and critique, and to deliver excellent work for the benefit of a larger group. These are all traits that translate well to leadership.
What, then, makes a good follower? It’s not about agreeing with everything the team leader wants or mindlessly carrying out directives. Strong followers add value, collaborate, and support. Here are some keys to training a good follower:
1. Contribute: Followers should engage from the beginning of a process to the end. They should not be afraid to criticize — constructively, of course — decisions that are made, either by their teammates or their leader. And they should bring plenty of their own ideas to the table.
2. Listen well: A key part of being a good follower is to hear what is important to leaders, and to wider teams. Followers should understand team goals, what’s at stake and how others think they can succeed. They should pay attention to the details.
3. Support the team: Give credit to teammates and leaders for their successes and be generous in celebrating these successes with them.
4. Don’t undermine the team: Let the work output speak for itself, at least while in the middle of a project. If followers disagree with the direction of the group or its leadership, they should offer constructive criticism—and speak up when the project is done.
Too often, we hear “follower” as a negative—as if anyone who isn’t leading a team or a business is somehow weak or incompetent. But being a strong collaborator, someone who can contribute strong ideas and make others’ ideas better, who respects the people they work with and listens well to them: These are qualities on which great businesses are built.
Leaders are crucial to success — but so are followers.