Being a Good Follower

by Mario on January 28, 2009

in General Leadership,Toolbox

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For all the hype (and there is alot of it) about leadership, too few people give voice to the one thing all leaders need.  Followers. And if you want to really get good at leading – you had better lock down following first. I don’t care how cool your boss is, true followership is not easy.  It requires a commitment to constant self-evaluation, risk, and exposure that can be uncomfortable at best and sometimes just plain excruciating.  Here’s why:

Almost invariably, your boss has advice for you that he or she is holding back.  This is particularly true if you are an outstanding performer (Yes, I’m talking to you – poor performers do NOT read leadership blogs).  Given the great job you normally do, your boss may be unwilling to bother you with the one or two little things they would like to see you improve upon.  This requires giving your boss permission to hurt your feelings.   You have to spend time with your boss.  You have to take the time, regardless of the feedback you are already getting, to ask your boss tough questions about yourself.    A great way to do this is to set an informal and private meeting with your supervisor and ask questions like;

“Are there things I can do better or differently that would improve my job performance?” or better yet;
“What is it I do that bothers you but you’re not telling me?”

Yes, I know this is assumptive and the “but you’re not telling me” part implies a deficiency in your supervisor (Yes, they have them), but as long as you deliver the question with a real bent towards honesty and improvement, they will understand your meaning and not take offense.  Now you have to get ready for the next step; You must shut-up, listen and then you MUST take the advice that is given.  At least for a while; Even if you strongly disagree, you have to give the feedback a chance.  Remember, you asked.  If you get defensive and try to explain away or defend the constructive criticism you receive, you will only be making it harder for your boss to be honest next time. Taking the time to request criticism and then acting on the advice is  also a great builder of trust which leads to more challenging assignments and forgiveness when you do make mistakes (and you will ).

“Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination……Organizations that encourage thoughtful dissent gain much more than a heightened air of collegiality. They make better decisions. Like good leaders, good followers understand the importance of speaking out. More importantly, they do it.”
~ Warren Bennis

To be an effective follower, you must also be truthful to your boss.  You must be willing, even if you think it might (it won’t) be damaging to your career, to tell your boss what you think; of him, of the organization, of the most recent policy change he has initiated; of anything.  Disagreement with your boss is vital for changing organizations like the Coast Guard.  Remember, however, there is a correct way to disagree.  A disagreement without a solution is a complaint.  You must, of course, remember (and so few of us do) that disagreement goes up and never down.  It’s like that scene in Apollo 13 where Jim Lovell tells Ken Mattingly that he can’t go to the moon.  Lovell thought Mattingly should be allowed to go, but the flight director said no.  Lovell never blamed anyone else, he just said, “This was my call.”

Quality support is best displayed by leaders who disagree up the chain when they need to, but when a decision is made, support that decision as if it were their own.  Many a VP has been hated primarily because they are effective followers and complain up, but never down.  P.S.  Telling a subordinate that an unpopular decision was not yours but came from someone above you, is a tacit way of implying dissent.  It’s a respect-robbing trap.  Don’t fall into it.

Following the Corporate Lead:

An acid test for your skills as a follower is your ability to support company policy.  It’s easy (very easy) to make the mistake of expressing disagreement with new policies from outside and above the local level.  You may not agree with say, your company’s new policy on time reporting or expenses, but do you try to explain the benefits to your team, or do you join in and complain about “them” for making that decision?  Remember, whenever you openly complain about a corporate policy, you are openly complaining about the boss, your employer and theirs, your career choice and theirs.  Bit by bit, little by little, complaints (instead of support) about company decisions will make your team feel worse about where they work; your job is to make them feel better.

“There will always be people who disagree with you, Mario.  The hard part will be getting them to tell you about it, instead of someone else.”  my Father

To be an effective follower, you should also solicit constructive criticism from …wait for it…your subordinates.

When looking for any position at Hewlett-Packard, managers must interview with potential bosses AND potential subordinates. Given the same weight in grading potential leaders, the opinion of those who will be lead is taken seriously at HP.  Even in the evaluation procedures for long-time managers, personnel who work for the manager are solicited for their opinion on key leadership competencies.  This is a practice I have always wanted to see in the military.  Imagine the change if every chief knew, all year long, that his subordinates had the same say in his marks as his boss. If that is not how things work in your job, effective leaders should always spend part of their time asking the people that work directly for them, “How am I doing?”   The people under you (PS, it helps to think of them as “next to” you) definitely have things to say that they are reluctant to for obvious reasons.

The people working for you need to be encouraged to talk with you about your decisions, leadership style, etc.  They have ideas that would make you better, but the only way to get them to tell you is to honestly ask.  You have to become the good listener you hope your boss becomes when you disagree with her. Followership; it must be practiced up and encouraged down the chain of command.  You must be a good follower of your boss and the corporate leadership at large. And you must encourage good followership (through example mostly), including criticism, from your peers and subordinates.

disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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