Following Means Leading

Much ink has been spilled on writing about effective organisational leadership in the past twenty years, but only recently has the theme of followership been given the attention it ought to have. Increasingly organisations have come to realise that establishing an environment for the right kind of followership is key to accelerating employee engagement.

The new breed of followers

In the past, “followers” have often been perceived as “passive,” “conformist” and “order takers.” But as command-and-control, top-down hierarchies increasingly fade away, flatter organisations want a new breed of followers — engaged employees who can think independently, even if it means occasionally pushing back on peers and senior staff.

Of course, for this to happen, some staff members will have to say goodbye to the heartfelt belief that they alone have good ideas. They will need to accept that good ideas can come from virtually any source, followers included.

Besides, is it not in the best interests of an organisation to let creativity flourish anywhere, anytime — to turn itself into an innovation engine?

Conversational culture

Employee engagement thrives in organisations that value conversation, where order-taking gives way to robust discussion, and where give and take among all levels of staff is actively encouraged. The ancient Greeks knew this long before we did. To capture this observation, they coined the word “dialectic” — roughly translated as “conversation.” They understood that by encouraging conversation with different points of view and by ignoring a person’s social rank, a conversation could yield valuable results: better and more formulated ideas; the exposure of ideas that didn’t make sense; and, in the end, a greater consensus.

And it seems to make sense. Haven’t we all had the experience of changing our viewpoint after a spirited conversation at the water cooler — even with a “subordinate?”

Indeed, encouraging conversation and feedback on a regular basis blurs the line between leadership and followership. What becomes important isn’t who came up with the good idea, but carrying it out together and achieving the outcomes that the good idea enables.

The best leaders and the best followers understand this instinctively and promote an environment in which conversation and employee engagement can thrive. In this respect, true leaders establish their legitimacy not over, but with and through their followers, turning them into engaged employees.

The end of the order-taker

What’s more, once it becomes apparent that an organisation is willing to embrace a conversational culture, more and more followers will rise to the occasion. Refusing to assume an order-taker status, they will work synergistically with ready-to-listen leaders.

A “follower,” for example, will no longer execute on his or her part of a strategic plan without first conversing with peers, mulling it over with leaders, and polling “subordinates.” Leaders, for their part, will do the same thing. What’s to be done, how it’s to be done, and agreement on the outcomes will be thoroughly aired in a 360-degree conversation.

When this Conversation happens — yes, let’s give it a capital “C” — what remains isn’t so much a divide between leaders and followers but the emergence of a single team of engaged employees — one whose focus is on making outcomes happen. What we see is a leadership-followership feedback loop — one in which the leader’s authority is built on a continuous Conversation with followers, and in which a shared identity is gradually established for the whole organization. This is discussed in the book The New Psychology of Leadership by Reicher, Platow and Haslam.

Unfinished business

Engaged employees value the opportunity to participate in creating this shared identity. They see their organisation, not as a pre-packed thing, but as a living organism whose ongoing survival demands their involvement.

Of course, the organisation to which they belong may already have a shared identity — an established legacy of which they can be proud. But the best followers treat this legacy as a trust to be administered in order to bear interest. They understand that in all organisations “unfinished business” is a continuous way of life — that the Conversation must and will continue.

Another way of putting it is that engaged employees can be leader-followers and follower-leaders at the very same time. Leader-followers because they can advance the agenda within their own sphere of engagement and follower-leaders because they can support the leader with direct and honest feedback.

Seen this way, the best followers make the best leaders and vice versa.

Emulation and imitation

Engaged employees are comfortable not only with the dual roles of leadership and followership but also draw a sharp distinction between emulation and imitation. Emulation is creative and imitation is not.

They understand that mere imitation — even of a leader they happen to respect — adds no value. It’s like the difference between a band that writes an original hit and one that performs a cover tune. The best followers feel the difference. Engaged followers want to work with teams on innovative solutions and are reluctant to follow ready-made, top-down blueprints.

Tips for encouraging an effective followership culture to foster employee engagement

1. Review your corporate culture and ask yourself: How open is it to continuous conversation.
2. Talk with each other across organisational silos and through organisational levels. Develop feedback mechanisms to ensure that all voices are heard and feedback is captured.
3. Encourage grassroots followership initiatives even if, occasionally, some of these fail. Innovation without setbacks is simply not possible.
4. Give employees opportunities to develop their own leadership capabilities and reward creative followership behaviors linked to organisational goals.

Get started today. Encourage the development of conversational culture that will transform “followers” into engaged employees who lead your organisation to even greater success.