Shifting the seats in the room…the case of leading by following



The general phenomenon that the buck stops at the leader, where demands for accountability for non-performance, failed decisions, plans and strategies, delivery of excellent results and the provision of solutions become the prerequisite base for leadership judgement and assessment is an argument not in dispute. Meanwhile, leadership is supposed to work and receive support from trusted, dedicated and fine talents of followership to guarantee anticipated leadership success.

Organizations and teams that produce impressive results are a combination of leadership contributions and followership readiness and sacrifices of assistance for same to realize the planned goals and objectives. No leader works alone but needs dedicated hands who share in the common dream to make things work. Followership expectations for today’s organizational management and control present a greater and more equal balance for topical discussions and deliberations.

The wholesome concern to recognize that within a group of followers, the one who stands out creatively nurtures and leads the ambitious desires and aspirations of the individuals to meet expectations of the organization or the team for success is important. Arguably, there’s no leader who has not followed before; and even with that, effective leaders continue to follow throughout the trajectory of their leadership journey. Hence, it’s absolutely necessary to zero-in on the few critical issues that make some individuals stand out while remaining followers and others not.

Followership unlike leadership is equally a task which must be approached with all the consciousness and relevance pertaining to service. Every follower is a potential leader based on the attitudinal mindset and perspective view of what followership means to that individual. Potential leaders do not need seats in front to cause a shift in matters pertaining to the wellbeing, strategic direction, change necessities, excellence and greatness by the organization. That’s their nature. The quest to do a piece on followership necessitated a comprehensive study of the 5 dimensional categorizations of followership types and their competencies. Followership is more than just following the leader. There’s a high price of contributions, sacrifices and self-denials to be made to ensure the leader is successful.

What is Followership?

Followership describes how individuals respond to and interact with their leader and others. It is characterized by active participation in the pursuit of organizational goals. In many cases, this means working independently, being accountable for ones’ actions, and taking ownership of necessary tasks. Responsibility weighs on leaders, and the higher an individual is in an organization, the heavier the responsibility. Therefore, the ability to work in concert with a leader, being guided by that leader but still having the courage of ones’ convictions to execute the vision of the leader within the framework of personal accountabilities defines who a true follower is.

Leaders can give up many things but cannot delegate responsibility. As such, the follower has two major things to do. To make the leader’s load either lighter or heavier. Followership in essence defines the corporate engagement of the follower with the leader in accomplishing the mission through the demonstration of a high degree of teamwork and cohesive building among organizational members.

Who is an Effective Follower?

To what extent is your position, office or actions directly responsible for causing a dynamic shift in decisions and policies that affect the entire team or the organization if you are not the leader positively? Has your perspective of events and contributions as a customer service person, a bank teller, an insurance agent caused any change about how the team leader, supervisor or management ought to respond to customer satisfaction issues, improved sales, revenue collections in your bank, hotel, insurance company etc., even though you are not the leader of your team or department?

The creative admission and purposeful attempts in engineering provisional acts to better the cause of a leadership agenda and improve results speak to acts of an effective followership. As earlier indicated, effective followers are leaders in waiting. They simply lead from their seats even when they have not been handed an official leadership title. Effective followership is demonstrated through the character of team player-ship, an attitude of demonstrating loyalty and gratitude, remaining an instrumental team contributor and increasing the ability to remain valuable and influential in the team’s decisions and activities.

Knowing Your Followers as a Leader

Having said that, to what extent do all leaders know their followers? The ability of the leader to know well his followers and how their potentials, competencies and/or shortcomings affect leadership is a recipe for acknowledging and leveraging to harness these factors for the satisfaction of any meaningful progress and success. According to Robert Kelly, followers can be grouped into 5 different types who form the basis of motivation and behaviour in the workplace.

The question, obviously, is not whether to have followers but what kind of followers the leader wants and are contributing to leadership support. Every leader wants good followership – the people who take appropriate actions with great skill and achievement. The leader therefore wants followers with a can-do attitude, a personal drive to stay current, the passion to drive personal growth and an attitude of offering collaborative support. Anything short of these is a great disincentive to the leader.

The question is, what follower-type are you? Are you the Sheep follower or an Effective follower? Are you a Conformist or Alienated follower? The Pragmatic? Any assumed position has its own dynamic responses and effects the leader ought to deal with and manage. Whereas the Effective (Stars) followers have the courage to initiate changes and serve the best interest of the leader in the organization, the Alienated (Cynics) follower are often capable of handling the task but unwilling to participate in developing solutions to problems. They often feel cheated, maligned and unappreciated – and as such do largely sit on the fence when it comes to full commitment and their readiness to make any meaningful contribution to shape great and small matters.

The Conformist followers on the other side are the ‘Yes’ people of the organization. They readily agree to every decision without thorough checks and considerations. They fully carry out orders without questioning and considering the consequences. They make little or no constructive criticism of issues or debate about critical notes of concern to benefit the team or organization. They are by default not critical thinkers and by their predisposition does not help in shaping policy discourse.

Overreliance by the leader on these follower groups to assist in taking strategic policy direction is often chaotic and misguided. The leader equally has the Sheep follower or subordinate to manage. A team dominated by Sheep or Passive followers often exhibit the behaviour of always waiting on the leader for everything pertaining to instructions to do anything. Creativity and innovation are not their hallmarks. They lack the ability to think on their feet, are very afraid of believing in themselves as capable hands to offer solutions that may advance the course of their team, and largely would require constant supervision for every work assigned. And the Pragmatic….?

The Pragmatic follower is somewhat independent in their thinking and is actively involved in major issues of concern to the organization. They are measured and limited in their criticism of leaders. They can easily switch between different styles of followers to adapt in each situation and still remain very creative and relevant in all matters pertaining to guiding the course of the team or organization. They are phenomenal team players and game changers who inspire progress, creative thoughts and are beacons of inspiration and innovation for the team or organization.

Creating an Effective Followership Identity

Effective leaders create the right environment for effective followership to flourish. For this to happen, leaders must however set the tone within the organization to enable their subordinates or followers to be as effective as possible. The right amount of empowerment for followers to contribute to the business’s goals is nothing but the prerequisite to making followers effective. Empowering followers means training them in ways to solve problems as well as allowing them act without approval for every task. In essence, empowerment enables followers to exert leadership over their specific area of work.

It is therefore an important admission to establish that people don’t just follow. They follow a leader who will have their back and are ready to impact, feed, train and bring out the best in them. The progressive move to build one’s (subordinate) identity as a true and effective follower comes with great discipline and conscious efforts of hard work – both for the leader and follower alike. The honest build-up and development to an effective followership underscores the training and mastery of skills and character, and the acceptance to remain a personality with a sense of purpose, self-discipline, credibility that exercises commonsense. Followers who ‘shift’ through their contributions in team management are visionary even when the individual sits not on the high table and is not directly part of the decision-making body; this is an action of deliberate self-consciousness.

Again, followers must know where they fit and the contributions needed from them to make the organization successful. Through self-discipline, the follower should necessarily avoid negative self-indulgence, inappropriate displays of emotions such as anger, and counterproductive responses to everyday pressures of the job; and demonstrate that they can be depended on to make difficult decisions in unpleasant situations with steadfastness and consistency.

Furthermore, creating an effective followership identity requires an equal effort of showing credibility by being knowledgeable, consistent, fair and impartial in all human reactions. The follower must know how to apply tact in dealing with other colleagues on the team. They must make a priority of building energy, endurance and good health, as well as demonstrating the willingness to do everything within the limits of the law, professional ethics, and company policy to help make team successes feasible.

To that effect, followers expect also as a duty from their leader the following:

  • Clear goals and direction
  • Coaching and Development of Potential
  • Frequent, Specific and Immediate feedback as great add-ons to ensure the follower stands out.

Becoming a Follower of Influence Through Leadership Management

The benefits of an effective followership and the capacity to provide great support for leadership performance is a desirous impetus to ensuring the building and managing of competencies of individuals (subordinates) for leadership advantage and benefits. Followers must know who they are by competencies (skills and capabilities) so that they can properly receive training, mentorship and coaching if the need be. The trajectory of the incompetency/competency cycle on the followership journey can be better and more fully appreciated when leadership takes the greatest part – an interest in profiling all those it leads as to whether they are consciously or unconsciously capable of understanding what is expected of them in terms of tasks.

Effective followers move from the arena of the unconsciously unknown to embrace courage and accept responsibility, challenge authority, participate in change, serve the needs of the organization and work on until they become competently conscious for the benefit of the organization. In addition, effective followers demonstrate the attribute of high volunteerism and are willing to accept difficult assignments.

They consistently seek to build a professional, trusted relationship with the leader, and become a resource for the leader with great realistic expectations. Leadership therefore manages and deals with the competencies of its followers through the use of Telling, Selling, Participating and Delegation styles.

As such, followers who lack task specific experience or skills and the confidence necessary to act require that the leader tells them what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It involves a more directive and authoritative approach in dealing with this level of followers. Selling is a high task, high relationship style the leader may use to send his ideas across through directing and persuasion. The leader employs selling to provide structure or guidance in combination with reinforcement and recognition to accelerate task-specific growth and performance-related depth.

In participating, the leader leverages on the established relationship behaviour with followers to enable them solve problems. This characterized by the active involvement of team members in identifying objectives, developing strategy and decision-making. The leader may apply delegation as a means to empower a follower, trusting him/her to deliver an agreed-upon result. And before the leader delegates any task to a follower or subordinate, he’s sure of the ability of such a follower to deliver.

I therefore submit in summary and conclude that the very important role of followership in creating leadership identity and improved measures of performance and management is an exercise that involves reciprocity and the mutual exchange of influence by both leadership and followers – as such, it’s the only way possible of ensuring the ‘shifted seats’ and positions remain relevant and impactful.

Discovery…Thinking solutions, shaping visions. 


The writer is the CEO and Strategic Partner of AQUABEV Investment and Discovery Consulting Group. CONTACTS:

Email: [email protected] or [email protected]

Tel: +233-0241824033/+233-0501324604


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