Everyone talks about the importance of leadership, and there is no doubt about its importance. But very few people seem to stop and think about the importance of followership.
There is an Afghani proverb which makes me chuckle, but it is so true: “If you think you are a leader, and you look behind you and there is no-one following you, then you are just going for a walk in the park” It is interesting that what makes a leader so impactful, seems to be the inertia created by people who believe in their vision and are willing to align themselves with it and put their effort into bringing it to fruition.
The other trend I see is that when you read stories about great leaders, there was usually (not always, but usually) a season in their lives where they were a follower. And, significantly, the trend is that they were a good follower! (Entrepreneurs not necessarily included in this…) It seems to me that a key skill in being part of a community, whether that is a work community, a social community, a spiritual community or a sports community, is the ability to play on another’s team and to support the achievement of a vision and a goal that we did not create.
Its not about getting out of the way, about simply not being an obstacle. The key is to become an active player, an energiser, a comrade, a lever, a encourager, a co-labourer. Anyone can simply avoid being an obstacle. That is an absolutely meaningless contribution to the work. The key of being a good follower is to add value unselfishly and passionately, to someone else’s work. If you can make it your own and buy into it wholeheartedly that is first prize. But there are many things where we can’t do that. We simply don’t feel that way about it. And yet, we are in that place, on that team, and we have to choose the role we will play.
Personally, I have always thought of myself as a better 2IC than a leader – and this has made me consider ways to enhance and support the leadership of the person who is leading me. In the words of another motivational chirp “If you can’t win the race, help the one ahead of you to break the record”
I never used to be any good at this. I still struggle sometimes, but I remember the moment when this realisation dawned on me and when I began to make a real effort to be a team player.
It was the week our new pastor arrived at the church I was at. I was self-employed and had made a decision every week to participate in the church project to collect food and deliver it to the needy communities that surrounded our church. We used to drive around and hand out packages of goodies to families we knew about. I was just finishing up when he called me on my mobile and said that he wanted to change how we did it, that instead of us going to the community, he wanted to work it so that those in need, made the short walk (500m) to the church premises to collect.
Man, I was upset. I had sort of adopted this programme as my own, and was getting a great deal of fulfilment out of it, meeting families etc. But in no small way, I was very upset at the fact that he was asking me to change how I did MY work. (And of course, it removed my high solo profile and made me part of the bigger team with a smaller profile – probably, if I am completely honest, the real reason for my attitude!)
Luckily, my non-team player instinct was slow off the mark, and my words to him were “Sure Alan, no problem”. I then had to resolve my own internal battle to realign my attitude with the commitment I had made, and managed to get it right after a few minutes. (I don’t think I ever told him this part of the story)
But at that point I realised that what he needed as a new leader was people he could trust and rely on not to question, not to judge, or withhold commitment to see if he measured up. He just needed team players. So I chose to become one.
All our leaders need this decision from us. No leader can afford to spend huge amounts of energy and time managing recalcitrant team players. Recalcitrance is a curse. It is put bluntly, a divisive, manipulation of team dynamics. If you are currently a follower, resolve to be a good one. Don’t try be the leader if it is not the season for it. Don’t get out of the way (that’s just abdicating and avoiding responsibility). Get in the boat, grab an oar, and row for all you are worth.
Not only does this prove that you are a good follower, and give you huge credibility and trust with those whose team you are on; it is, I believe, a core ingredient of being a good leader later on. If you should not ask of your team anything you are not willing to do yourself, then be an effective follower when you must be, so that you can be an effective leader when you should be.