Do You Know When To Lead and When To Follow?

“The most difficult instrument to play in the orchestra is second fiddle.”
~ Leonard Bernstein

Do You Know When To Lead and When To Follow?

Did you know that following can sometimes be more powerful than leading?

Did you know that natural born leaders can also be great followers?

Did you ever even think there was such a thing as a great follower?

Well, read on and I’ll explain why it’s worth adding some followership skills to your arsenal.

Make it Look Right in THEIR Eyes

Join a decent consultancy firm and you will learn all about client service.

As a good consultant you will put the client first, you will listen to the client and you will hear the client.

You will understand that you won’t win points by telling the client they’re wrong, but by allowing them to draw upon your skills and knowledge in the way that THEY want to in order to make things right.

Finally, you will understand that it’s when things look right in THEIR eyes, and not in yours, that you will have done a good job.

When things look right in the clients eyes, then you have done a good job.

The Followership Concept

As a consultant it’s very often just as important to be a good follower as it is to be a good leader.

This is particularly important for natural born leaders.

For a natural leader to play a strong role in a team that they are not formally leading can be quite a challenge.

Perhaps you have seen it before that an individual in a team situation tries to ‘take over’ when it’s not really their position to…

… they can’t help themselves.

This can be a common occurrence in the ‘Storming’ stage of team development.

The result of this is often that the person who is supposed to be fulfilling that role feels undermined and the team dynamic can often break down.

You may have also seen the reverse situation where a leader is really successful thanks to the support of a great team or maybe just a great right hand person.

In fact, right hand person, or trusted advisor roles are some of the most powerful roles you can get, often benefiting from a lot of referent power via association with the leader, yet also with more reach and exposure – which such a position used wisely with good followership skills allows.

Good Followership Is Not As Easy As It Sounds

It may seem obvious to some, but what I have learned through experience is that being a good follower is often very important and is not as easy as it sounds.

It is an absolute art form and if you can master it so that you are consciously a good follower, then it is another string to your bow, will give you far greater flexibility and people will want to work with you.

When you have good followership skills, people will want to work with you.

I use the example of a consultant as most people have worked with consultants of some description at one point or another and therefore can relate to why followership might be important in that kind of role.

The next step is to realize that actually, this concept is important in EVERY role, in every sector and in every situation.

If you’re not the leader, then who are you going to be?

If you’re not in a team, then by definition you are the leader (of yourself).

In all other circumstances you’re either a good team player, helping the leader and the team to succeed – i.e. you’re a good follower, or you’re not (whether it’s sitting on the sidelines or something more actively disruptive).

Picture The Scene

You step into my office – I’m about to interview you for a role you really want.

I ask you: “So would you say you’re a good leader?”

You answer confidently with a smile: “Yes.”

Then I ask you: “… and do you also know how to be a good follower?”

… and it’s when you can also answer “Yes.” to the second question, that you are an interesting prospect for my business.

Final Thoughts

So consider the idea of followership – and when it might be appropriate.

  • Instead of criticizing (either openly or when the person you’re criticizing is not there), offer your full support even when the person you’re supporting may have different ideas than your own.
  • Instead of waiting for an idea to fail because you wouldn’t do it that way, get interested, offer even more support and help make the idea succeed.

If you are a natural leader then you will understand better than anyone how powerful that support can be and how much it’s needed and you will be a better, stronger and more respected individual for it.


Do You Know When To Lead and When To Follow? — 21 Comments

  1. You know, at the beginning of the article I wasn’t sure where you were going to go with it, but once I saw your direction I came along with you and understood and agreed. As a consultant, often the job is to come in and fix things. Yet sometimes you’re not alone, and then it becomes a joint effort, with each person doing their particular thing while someone is the lead and brings everyone else together. It’s a different role to play and yet it’s freeing because you’re not ultimately responsible for everything, just your piece. And if you do it well & the project succeeds, you look good along with everyone else.

    Nice job!
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted..Do You Have 5 Minutes?My Profile

    • Hey Mitch,

      I’m glad you like it – the consultant is just one example, but followership is actually something that’s not talked about much (because generally the stereotypical ‘leader’ is the one that gets all of the glory so that is what we focus on – i.e. not just the leader, but when looking at that person, their ‘leadership’ skills, rather than necessarily how well they have followed, galvanised and empowered others along the way).

      Good leaders know how to lead, great leaders know how to lead and how (and when) to follow.

  2. Alan!

    Very useful arcticle! I think everyone should be a great follower, even they are not leaders. I mean if I go to a store to complain I would like to be understood, because I am the client. I think every leader should teach their employees to be a great follower, because as you said a good leader is a great follower, too. However not just leaders should be!
    Sandy recently posted..Judging by the cover?My Profile

  3. I took a communications class that discussed this a little. Well, it went over the roles people play in group settings. The teacher explained that of all the roles in a group, the leader is just one. Even though the leader usually gets the attention, the other people in the group are just as important.

    What’s weird is how often I’ve seen people try to take over the role of leader in groups even though they shouldn’t. It makes the group not work well and things don’t flow as good as it should. It’s better to let the person most qualified take over and lead. So you’re right to value following skills since someone who can’t do that can really mess a group up.

    Something I learned is that there can be several leaders to a group. It can depend on the task being worked on and if you’re the best person to take over to finish the task. So even if you’re a follower one minute, you might be a leader the next.
    Steve recently posted..Break Through Conventional Wisdom and Do Things on Your TermsMy Profile

    • Hey Steve,

      it’s a good point you make that in some situations the leader changes – and in a wider sense this is true too – there is an expression along those lines something like be kind to the people you meet on the way up because you might bump into them again on the way down. Something like that anyways.

      take care my friend and thanks for another great comment,

      a bientot,

  4. Alan,
    this term or concept of being a good follower is new to me but on some levels it reminds me a little of being a good team player or working on a team perhaps?

    When I used to manage small groups of people in my corporate life, a lot of times i tried to mentor them by stepping back and handing the reigns of leadership over to them. it was how I developed my people.

    Do you think their is crossover with these two concepts followership and teamwork? Or is it just me that finds the similarities?
    Annie Andre recently posted..Get Paid To Be You! Create A Hire Me Page: (Monthly Report #3 July 2012)My Profile

    • Hey Annie,

      its a good point and you’re right, it’s very similar.

      Being a good follower is more specific and directly to do with the role in relation to the ‘leader’ or leadership of a particular group or situation. It comes into play really clearly when you have strong-minded leaders who find it difficult to be supportive of other people’s ideas and want to take over – in this case they need to learn about the concept of followership and use their great leadership skills to support rather than hinder the actual appointed leader and perhaps help galvanize the rest of the team or organization behind that leader (or idea) – e.g. in the case of the trusted adviser role.

      does that help explain a little better?

  5. Love the quote your opened your post with, Alan!

    I think most of us are born wanting to lead (doesn’t of course mean that we’ve got the talent for it), yet being a great follower is the skill that is developed as we get wise enough to know how important it is.

    Thanks for the great guest post at TGC!
    Ana Hoffman recently posted..My Internet ToolboxMy Profile

  6. Hi Alan

    Thanks for the article and highlighting followership, if anyone is interested we have a group on Followership on Linkedin and would be welcome should you wish to join.

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