Safety & Health: Great Leadership Needs Great Followership

The question of whether leaders are born or made is one that has views on either side. However, there’s little to suggest that leaders, by nature or nurture, don’t have a significant impact on the effectiveness of an organization.

When discussions about training, education and development of leaders’ surface, the conversation often focuses squarely on those in formal positions of leadership. But what is the role of followership in developing effective leaders? Too often, an ineffective leader is a product of overemphasizing leadership skills and underemphasizing the art and practice of followership.

Followership is “the capacity or willingness of an individual to actively follow a leader; the reciprocal social process of leadership.”

While followership was first used in the late 1920s, scholarly research on the topic became prevalent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, principally by scholars such as Robert E. Kelly and Ira Chaleff.

Bower and Parry (2014) suggest that leadership is an inclusive function in an organization and, rather than simply being vested in a single position, individual or set of results, it involves the interaction of both leaders and followers.

Followership can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, but it commonly involves the questions, “Why would someone follow me?” or “Why would I follow someone else?”

From a leadership perspective, there’s value in either question.

Former HP Executive Vice President Vyomesh Joshi indicates that part of being a great leader is asking the question, “Why would anyone want to follow me?” Joshi states that there are four key attributes of followership (Peterson, 2013):

  • Trust – Can you be trusted? Do you do what you say, even in the midst of resistance?
  • Stability – Do you remain calm and inspire a sense of confidence around you?
  • Compassion – Do you have passion and empathy for those around you?
  • Hope – Do you have a belief that your product or service will not only succeed but transform lives?

This is a fairly common perspective, placing significant responsibility on leaders to craft themselves into someone others will follow to achieve goals established by the organization or in some cases the individual. This view is common among private sector organizations, particularly those that focus on the acquisition of profit.

Fire and emergency service organizations draw many of their origins, structure, history and business ways from the military. While today’s military have in many ways changed, some of their leadership (and followership) perspectives perhaps remain applicable to modern fire and emergency service organizations.

In a paper he wrote for leadership candidates in the U. S. Air Force, Colonel Phillip Meilinger argues that 10 rules of followership can enable good leadership:

  1. Don’t blame your boss for an unpopular decision or policy; your job is to support, not undermine.
  2. Fight with your boss if necessary, but do it in private, avoid embarrassing situations and never reveal to others what was discussed.
  3. Make the decision, then run it past the boss; use your initiative.
  4. Accept responsibility whenever it’s offered.
  5. Tell the truth and don’t quibble; your boss will be giving advice up the chain of command based on what you said.
  6. Do your homework; give your boss all the information needed to make a decision; anticipate possible questions.
  7. When making a recommendation, remember who will probably have to implement it. This means you must know your own limitations and weaknesses as well as your strengths.
  8. Keep your boss informed of what’s going on in the unit; people will be reluctant to share their problems and successes. You should do it for them and assume someone else will tell the boss about yours.
  9. If you see a problem, fix it. Don’t worry about who would have gotten the blame or who now gets the praise.
  10. Put in more than an honest day’s work, but don’t ever forget the needs of your family. If they are unhappy, you will be too, and your job performance will suffer accordingly.

While no cookie-cutter approach to leadership or followership will fit every situation or organization, those who would be great leaders must also be able to be great followers. Leadership development programs must not only discuss the role of followership, but also include efforts to develop and improve individual’s competence as both leaders and followers.

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