The value of being a good follower

It will perhaps not have escaped your notice that business professionals have a habit of using a great many “management speak” phrases in their day-to-day communication. It might also have struck you that many people will push against their use in the early stages of their career, and then appear to become subsumed by them as they move up the corporate ladder themselves. By the time they move into more senior positions, their speech and emails may be littered with such phrases, and they’ll happily “leverage a deliverable” without a second thought.

It has to be said that there was often a genuine nuance that was originally aimed for when some of these phrases first appeared, even if their meaning has been whittled away by zealous over-use in the time since. Some were a genuine effort to create shorthand phrases for some complex topics, and they can serve a genuine function if their original meaning is still understood. There is, for example, a genuine distinction in the original definition of “Talent Management” which sets it apart from “Human Resources”. Although far more a description of a strategic focus on developing top employees and far less concerned with administrative aspects, nowadays it is nevertheless often used interchangeably when describing employee-related concerns.

“Leader” and “follower” are two such phrases that are intended to represent a great deal, but which can labour under the weight of misunderstandings, particularly in relation to each other. Unsurprisingly, “leader” comes loaded with a sense of success, of power, of responsibility. “Follower”, by contrast, is a word that creates a more negative impression – a person following in a race is, presumably, not winning, while the follower of a particular concept espouses the ideas of another, rather than having ideas of their own.

To put it another way, search for synonyms for “leader” and you’ll get words like “pioneer”, “front runner” and “innovator”. Do the same for “follower” and you might see “attendant”, “lackey” or “servant”. Safe to say, then, that leaders enjoy a more glamorous first impression.

The concept of followership is tied up with many of the leading theories on leadership. Almost all of these look at the different ways that leaders can connect with, inspire, and drive the performance of their followers. As a result, the focus on the person in charge can often create the abstract impression of followers as some form of mindless commodity, reacting and operating only at the behest of their leader. We might logically understand this not to be true, yet the impression of followers as mere supports to a leader’s achievement is hard to shift.

In reality, the significant contribution that followers make to leadership success masks the important role they fulfil in their own right. Ultimately, a compelling leadership vision can only take you so far – organisations also need capable, committed and self-reliant followers who can take the leadership vision and turn it into something tangible.

One way to look at this is to think of good followers and good leaders as really being distinguished only by their role, rather than by the competency and skill they demonstrate. Good followers, like good leaders, will be driven to make the organisations successful. They will seek out self-development opportunities and they will look for ways to improve both their own work and the overall output of the business.

Crucially, they will also eschew the passivity that the follower tag conveys, and honestly and straightforwardly push back against leaders when they disagree on a course of action or prioritise issues differently. They will also innovate and create, with the motivation to try new things and imaginatively tackle existing problems.

Leadership will not be the end position of every person’s career and that is really OK. A workforce full of leaders – or, indeed, one full of followers – would be incredibly ineffectual. What is needed is a recognition that our knee-jerk understanding of what it means to be a “leader” or a “follower” may need greater perspective, with an acknowledgement that neither necessarily represents a superior level of dedication, talent or value.

Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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