The Value Proposition of Followership

What’s on the other side of your leadership?

The link between leadership behaviors and organizational performance is widely understood and accepted. The simple calculus is this: Improving the capacity of leadership improves the capacity for healthy organizational culture. Improved organizational culture raises the probabilities of high performance. The simple fact that organizations will frequently look for better leaders when performance slips is a confirmation of this truth.

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Understanding this truth is essential. Unpacking this truth further one might ask: what is on the other side of the leader? The answer depends, doesn’t it? For leaders worth following, the answer here would be followers, right? In agreement, the flip side of leadership would then be followership. It stands to reason that if leadership is the lynchpin to performance, followership must have something to do with it, as well. So why does followership engage only a small fraction of the airtime and attention that leadership attracts?

fol·low·er·ship: the capacity or willingness to follow a leader

Followership is a pretty straightforward concept: It is one’s ability to work as part of a team, commit to an initiative, receive support and challenge, and deliver upon an expectation. Unfortunately, the impressions of followership are not quite as suggestive as the lure of leadership. How well the followers follow is probably just as important to organizational success as how well the leaders lead.

“Learning the secrets and skill of great No. 2’s remains the surest path to becoming No. 1.” – David Heenan and Warren Bennis

Value Proposition of Followership

Leadership development programs loudly trumpet their superiority in building influence. Albeit weird, I wonder how many in the business of leadership development actually market “the art of following?”

Followership may lack in luster to leadership but it is quite significant. Soberly, when organizations fall short in followership impact, they also struggle in performance. Yes, one may observe the busy buzz of office activity, but in organizations with low followership, busy may not always equate to production. Problems in leadership alignment manifest as negative behaviors such as sloppy work ethic, poor workplace climate, diversion from mission/vision, disgruntled stakeholders, higher product costs with lower product quality, and ultimately lost opportunities and competitive edge in the marketplace. Realistically, insecure leadership and insecure followership are one and the same with similar costs: poor organizational clarity and performance.

8 Truths for Followers:

  1. HustleGood followers are great workers. They are committed to the organizational mission and motivated in the work needed to succeed. Leaders have the obligation to create the conditions for hard work to be acknowledged and encouraged, but in the end, it is the responsibility of the followers to model quality work behaviors. There really are no bad workers who become good followers. 
  1. Competence Having requisite skills and knowledge of the tasks of performance coupled with hustle is a remarkable one-two punch for followership. The leader, like the wizened apprentice, is responsible for equipping his/her team with the skills, knowledge, and resources to perform at the highest levels. If the follower lags, many times this is actually a leadership issue and not solely a critique of performance of the follower. Dominating and protective leaders must step aside and lead differently by providing full access to the needs of maturing followers. Leaders might need to truthfully look in the mirror in apportioning blame when the vital skills of their number twos are not in good working order.
  1. CharacterRespect is important within the leader/follower dynamic, however it is never acceptable for followers to sit quietly while a ham-fisted leader drives the organizational ship into the rocks. Followers are responsible to candidly share the dynamics of reality from the field with their leaders. In turn, great leaders should embrace constructive feedback from their followers. Insecure leaders are averse to honest critique and create tricky cultures where hiding may be modeled as a tool of protection. 
  1. CourageSimilar to the relationship between hustle and competence, there is a natural link between the principles of character and courage. A mutual trust must crosswalk between both the leader and followers. Courage is exercised when truth and love intersect. It takes genuine courage to confront the leader’s agenda, or more boldly, the leader him or herself. From time to time, it takes genuine courage to be a healthy follower.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” – Ambrose Redmoon

  1. Mature Judgment – Followers must be adept in taking direction but also mature enough to challenge obligations that may present as unethical or not in agreement with the organization’s values. The key is having a healthy calibration of both support and challenge when filtering the difference between directives that are appropriate with a well-established internal warning system to respond with discretion when directives creep into unethical or mismatched territories of value.

Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.

  1. Discretion The antithesis of discretion is indiscretion. Discretion is care. Indiscretion is careless. It is essential for followers to exercise the principles of discretion while serving the organization and the leader. While it seems to be a pretty straightforward concept, discretion is the make or break of healthy culture. Keeping a temperate tongue is the mark of a good person, a great leader, and a remarkable follower. The leader and followers have a duty of care in exercising discretion and collective-policing the unhealthy behaviors of indiscretion out of the organization.
  1. HumilityFollowers are team players with their egos in check. Quality followers have high self-awareness and elevated capacity for healthy self-management. The markers of success for good followers should relate to high performance and goal achievement, not personal recognition or self promotion.
  1. Loyalty – Disloyal followers inevitable become the derailer of healthy culture. Good followers, on the other hand, respect their obligation of constancy to their organization and team. Loyalty is a principle that tends to slip when pressure and conflict rear up. Followers who are disloyal are inevitably a negative source of energy and transmit friction and the spirit of resistance across their teams. They are agitators who love to create problems between team members. Disloyal employees compromise the achievement of others, they waste professional time, and bottom line, they are a menace to the overall organizational culture.

Followership will most likely stay in the under crowded shadows of leadership. No worries. The reality is that without followers, there are no leaders. The maxim is absolutely true, that an organization is only as good as its leaders. I would appropriately add that it is also only as good as its followers.

Bring it Home

  • How might you personally benefit from becoming a better follower?
  • How might your capacity to follow actually increase your capital to lead?
  • Where might you start?
  • How can we help?


Feature photo courtesy of

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