Tips Become a Powerful Follower

The suicide mission came directly from the president of the United States in 1898: Go behind enemy lines in Cuba, find rebel commander Calixto García at his base in the inhospitable Sierra Maestra mountains, and win his support for the American campaign against Spain. One solider, Lieutenant Andrew Rowan, volunteered to follow this seemingly hopeless order. But Rowan ultimately succeeded in the mission, convincing the Cubans to join the American cause and winning the nation’s second-highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

This mission became the historical context for the 1899 essay “A Message to Garcia” (pdf), written by Elbert Hubbard, which is still used to train aspiring U.S. Army infantry officers on the essence of followership. And although the study of leadership outshines that of followership in both the military and the corporate spheres, followership is an important concept in both realms. Followership doesn’t mean blindly following orders, or turning into a sycophant. (Indeed, in his book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, executive coach Ira Chaleff highlights several ways for followers to assert themselves effectively.) Rather, followership is all about interacting in a skillful way with your leadership to benefit both you and your organization. What’s more, learning how to be a great follower is a requirement to becoming a truly great leader.

In the iconic leadership tome Good to Great, Jim Collins introduced “Level 5” leaders, those executives with the highest leadership capability. Collins and his colleagues studied companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 list between 1965 and 1995 and identified those that were able to beat market industry returns significantly over a period of at least 15 years. One of their key findings was that the presence of a Level 5 leader at the helm distinguished great companies from good. These are leaders who build enduring greatness through a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” Collins described these leaders as “more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.” In Collins’s view, practicing followership helps inculcate the sense of personal humility central to becoming a Level 5 leader. Great followers “[channel] ambition into the company, not the self,” Collins wrote.

A great follower can use the daily process of doing work for someone to become an opportunity to develop personal humility. On a daily basis, followership means subjugating your will to the will of your leader or organization. How you spend your time, where you work, when you take lunch, and often where you live is subject to the leader’s decision. Accepting these strictures without mindfulness will not make a person a great follower. Rather, practicing great followership means doing these things with a very specific purpose. Robert Kelley, Distinguished Service Professor of Management at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, has studied and written extensively on followership. His research reveals that effective followership comes from a combination of critical thinking and enthusiastic participation. Successful followers can thoughtfully transfer their goals, ambitions, or ego to their leaders. When their leaders succeed, the followers’ needs are met.

These insights allow us to construct a few basic tactics for developing a fail-safe and effective followership practice.

Know your leader’s comfort zone. A great follower understands how external conditions and their actions affect the leader’s well-being. Their comfort zone is informed by a number of factors including the work on their plate, their competence, and their life outside of work. As a follower, you know your work may be a small part of your leader’s day. It is important, then, to pay attention to what irritates your boss and how you can avoid sparking negative emotions.