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Followership – a need of the hour

Kalyan Kuppachi
   

Is it a sin to not be a leader? Well, in today’s context it seems so!

Be it schools, colleges or corporates, no stone is left unturned to churn leaders. Any initiative or program that has ‘Leadership’ draws maximum attention and putting it straight – SELLS. We are so in awe of ‘Leadership’ that many times I wonder what will we do with so many leaders, assuming they are successful in whatever they are doing. A lot of this has to do with the way a leader or leadership is portrayed. Try googling images for ‘Leader’ and you will find thousands of creative images that show one person (emphasis intentional) pulling others to the top of a hill, standing in front of a long queue, standing tall with a flag in hand, looking into a spyglass, and so forth. Who does not want to be associated with that heroic representation and one-upmanship? It’s appealing, after all!

Here is an interesting narration from my personal experience, during the early stage of my career when I was nominated for a Leadership workshop. Halfway through the session, I asked, “A leader is incomplete without a follower, do we have a program that teaches followership?”. I intended to know the best ways to look up towards leaders in the organization to learn and how to collaborate with them for success. The poor instructor wasn’t expecting this and gave a meek answer, “We believe everyone in this company to be a leader”. As ambitious as that sounded, I don’t blame him; it is not his fault. It is rare for organizations to think about such programs because we take followership skills for granted. We are so preoccupied with leadership that we undervalue its other side – Followership.

It is not just the corporate world that finds leadership glamorous; even academia and researchers find it attractive. Again, searching Google Scholar for leadership generates 42,90,000 results, while followership generates only 24,400 results – what a stark contrast, isn’t it? Aristotle believed, “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a leader”, projecting followership as a precursor to leadership. Though there was some followership research, it was Robert Kelley’s HBR (1988) article “In Praise of Followers”, which brought attention to this neglected field and drove home the point that not all corporate success is due to leadership. He went on further to write “The Power of Followership” in 1992, which influenced others like Ira Chaleff, Barbara Kellerman, Marc Hurwitz & Samantha Hurwitz, and the like who proposed various models of followership. Susan Cain, lecturer and author of the popular book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”, says that followership is gaining popularity in the field of Organizational Psychology.

Interestingly, there are some common questions that I have read or heard in every interview of the popular leaders, “Who is your inspiration?” or “What influenced your thinking?”. Inherently, we are keen to know their followership abilities. On social media today, the influential capacity of a leader is determined by the number of followers on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Yet, we do not nurture followership skills.

OK, I get it all this, so what should organizations do?

Easier asked than done! Looking at leadership through the lens of followership isn’t easy. This requires a mindset shift that acknowledges the following pointers:

  1. Leaders and followers are not two distinct sets of people, but roles assumed depending upon the context
  2. Leaders are followers and followers exhibit leadership
  3. Followers offer the same value to the organization as leaders
  4. Demarcate leadership and authority

This requires building a culture that promotes both leaders and followers as equals.

Improving collaborative skills is equally as important as communication skills. As Kelly suggested, we need to focus on promoting ‘Active, Independent and Critical Thinking’ to build effective followers. Besides these qualities, a conducive environment that fosters ‘Self Management, Commitment,, Discipline, Credibility, Courage, Honesty and Reliability’ will pave the way for good followership. These sound like leadership qualities, don’t they? Exactly the point; leaders and followers are interchangeable roles in an organization.

It is important for an organization to promote effective followership by forming leaderless groups to drive initiatives, where all members own responsibility and are empowered to make decisions and execute them. The immediate questions that spring up are related to reporting hierarchy, approvals, assessments, and related operational items. Hence, the demarcation between authority and leadership activities becomes important, such that short-term operational challenges do not dilute the importance of long-term goals.

The evaluation and feedback mechanisms have to encourage assessment of followership skills and not be restrictive to leadership skills. This may require a 360-degree feedback mechanism, where peers, subordinates, and managers provide feedback on the followership behavioral aspects and make it more frequent, unlike the annual performance evaluations. For sustained success, it is important to reward and create career paths for followers. Of course, this isn’t easy, but essential for the success of the organization.

In present times, when organizations are becoming flat and non-hierarchical, it requires effective followers working in-tandem with the leaders for success. Look at the current COVID-19 crisis, the need of the hour seems to be followership skills like self-management and discipline coming to our rescue and it’s time we read the writing on the wall.

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