Everyone likes to talk about leadership—we are culturally conditioned to view success as a progression through leadership positions—but there is far less attention paid to being a good follower. In fact, when most people think of themselves as followers, it’s often accompanied with negative feelings, like being judged as meek or submissive. As if being a follower comes at the expense of being a leader. But in reality, every leader in an organization is following someone, and so it serves us well to remember to live up to those responsibilities.
Models of Followership
There are many models of Followership out there that give us a handy way of understanding follower behaviors for our reports and for ourselves. One model I’m fond of is the Chaleff model which describes two axes: the degree of support a follower gives a leader and the degree to which the follower is willing to question or challenge the leader’s behavior or policies. These axes give rise to four distinct follower styles:
Implementers demonstrate high support but low challenge. They are workhorses, in that they take orders and don’t ask questions. It’s easy to love this type of follower more than others because they just get things done. The downside is that they won’t speak up when they see that the direction is not aligned with the company’s ideals or vision.
Resources display low support and low challenge. They do what is requested of them, but little more. In general this type of followership shows up to work and does just enough to retain their position and no more. They’re just trying to get by.
Individualists demonstrate low support and high challenge. They tend to think for themselves and prefer to do as they want. This type of follower will speak up when others are silent, but is often marginalized due to being habitually antagonistic.
Partners display both high support and high challenge. They are strong supporters but will provide challenge where they deem necessary. These types of followers take full responsibility for their own, as well as the leader’s behaviors and act accordingly. They give their whole heart to the corporate vision and the initiatives of the leader, but are open and honest enough to speak up when something doesn’t mesh with the best interests of the organization.
To date, I’ve used this model in a number of ways. The first being, at a basic level, just helping me understand the types of folks in my organization and how to bring them together into productive teams. Identifying potential tech leads (partners) with a supporting cast and being cognizant of the difficulties that might occur if an individualist gets that role.
I’ve also used followership concepts to frame career paths by setting expectations around follower behaviors at every level on the career ladder. Starting Engineers aren’t expected to be implementers or partners. Software Engineers, however, should be strong implementers, and Senior Software Engineers and above should be developing their ability to be partners. With those expectations set, I can ask interesting career progression questions. Followership gives me a framework to direct my feedback. For example, Engineer A needs to grow from a resource into an implementer. Or, Engineer B is too much of an individualist, and I need them to be a partner.
In a day-to-day leadership role, I use followership to keep me honest about embracing and rewarding strong partners. When words are spoken that I’d prefer not to hear, understanding followership helps me remember the positives of being challenged, and I would be well served to consider what is being said rather than dismiss it out of hand. It helps me avoid labeling people as troublemakers when they may, in fact, be influencing me in a better direction.
And finally, I’ve used followership to evaluate how I am following my manager. I have an imperative to express challenge when I feel strongly about something in the company’s interest. How am I living up to that responsibility? When my manager makes a decision, how am I undercutting or supporting them? What kind of follower does my manager need right now? These questions help me understand my performance and how I’m showing up in my role.
Good followers can influence leaders in positive ways that don’t always come in pleasant packages. Some of the most impactful work I’ve done has come as a result of listening to folks who disagreed with me. Moving beyond the concept of followers as just “people who do the work,” and adopting followership has helped me in numerous ways. As a follower, it helps clarify my responsibility to speak out and show support when appropriate. As a leader, followership reminds me that when I hear disagreement, it’s an opportunity to take a beat, listen, and appreciate.