The Hidden Art of Followership

By Ernest Hoffman

Devoting the space of a leadership blog to a topic like followership may seem out of place.  A good starting point might be calling attention to how few times faith leaders ever called us to lead and how many times these same people pushed and pulled us to follow.  As a leadership scholar, I have seen the topic of followership occupying more and more space in print and in practice.  Something wonderful is happening here, and I want to frame it for you in terms of a direct question: how effective are you at following?

Making followership tangible

I suppose that’s an unfair question to ask without defining followership in practical terms.  Being a follower requires you to be in relationship with a potential leader.  The way we respond to that potential, for better or worse, is our followership.  Much like our “leadership” is defined by what we do when we are in a position to influence people, “followership” is defined by what we do when we are in a position to be influenced.  To make it even more practical, a recent study of followership (Carsten, Uhl-Bien, West, Patera, & McGregor, 2010) defined these common characteristics of being a follower:

  • Team player
  • Positive attitude
  • Initiative/proactive behavior
  • Expressing opinions
  • Obedience/deference
  • Flexibility/openness
  • Communication skills
  • Loyalty/support
  • Responsible/dependable
  • Taking ownership
  • Mission conscience
  • Integrity

Before you read on, take a moment to evaluate your followership according to these traits.

The followership continuum

In my own thinking, followership could be mapped out along a continuum that looks like this:

Hijacks –> Strays –> Follows –> Promotes

The two behaviors in the middle, straying and following, are somewhat passive.  They remind me of Jesus’ references to sheep who largely function on “auto-pilot” – with minimal intention – and thus need the active guidance of a shepherd.

Intentional straying, or “hijacking,” consists of active efforts on our part to derail someone else’s influence.  These efforts can be overt – such as being competitive or trying to take the lead ourselves, or they can happen beneath the surface when we try to build political coalitions or alliances to subvert a leader’s agenda.

Intentional following, or “promoting,” occurs when we do everything we can to make the people we are following successful.  We exhibit significant buy-in by giving the best of what we have to equip those around us, not unlike the mission of Relā, which is defined as “empowering servant leaders to create a better world.”  Instead of being passive and reactive, intentional followers are consistently proactive, looking for ways to be an even stronger ally to their leaders.

Whenever we’re presented with a continuum, we like to try and plot ourselves in one definitive spot.  I would encourage you to push back against that tendency and consider ways that you are currently embodying all four of these behaviors: hijacking, straying, following, and promoting.  Another tendency we have with continuums is to call one end “good” or “desirable” and to label the other end “bad” or “undesirable.”  Rarely is it ever that simple, and the followership continuum is no exception.

Why hijacking isn’t always bad…and why promoting isn’t always good

It is fascinating to realize that Jesus’ approach to followership was to “hijack” systems the religious leaders of his day had put in place, particularly around issues of valuing/de-valuing and inclusion/exclusion. Moses was similarly called to “hijack” a system of slavery that had his native people functioning on “auto-pilot” within Egypt.  When you commit to showing up as a servant in the world of work, you are “hijacking” a system that feeds entitlement and a demand that others serve us.

Now flip the coin and remember a moment in the Biblical narrative when the Apostle Paul was going by the name of Saul and actively promoting the persecution and death of early Christians.  He was all the way bought in…to a destructive ideology.  Or put yourself around the campfire with Peter when he denied Jesus three different times and promoted a world where even the tough get going when the going gets tough.  By promoting separation and distance (i.e., “Jesus who?”), he was hijacking Jesus’ message of being unapologetically aligned with the people we love and believe in.

What should we hijack?  What shouldn’t we promote?  These are excellent follower questions.  In fact, our answers to these questions go beyond defining our followership to defining the influence – the leadership – we’ll assert in this world.  This brings me to a parting thought.

Partnership: the intersection of leadership and followership

While we’re talking about continuums, are we brave enough to dispel the notion that we’re either leaders or followers?  Are we brave enough to transcend followership and leadership for the purpose of embracing partnership?  In a thriving partnership, we know ourselves and others involved well enough to know when it’s our turn to lead and when it’s our turn to follow.  The bigger point – and the purpose of this blog – is to build up our muscles as leaders and as followers so that we’re ready to rise to the challenge of partnership in a system that is deeply separated and longing for fulfilling connection and reliable interdependence.

Source:

Carsten, M. K., Uhl-Bien, M., West, B. J., Patera, J. L., & McGregor, R. (2010). Exploring social constructions of followership:  A qualitative study.  Leadership Quarterly, 21, 543-562.

 

Ernest Hoffman is a Management Consultant with PRADCO, a company that specializes in assessment for hire as well as employee training and development.  He has also been an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for nearly 10 years.  Ernest has a Ph.D. in Industrial Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron and a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley.  His work is a published in a number of outlets, including Academy of Management Review, Leadership Quarterly, The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, and The Oxford Handbook of Leadership.  He was the 2016 recipient of Columbus CEO’s HR Excellence Future Leader Award. Ernest can be contacted at ehoffman@pradco.com.

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