What makes a good follower?


You probably know the story about how much you can learn from geese about leadership. If you haven’t you should take a look at  “Lessons from Geese” which was first written as a story in 1972 Dr. Robert McNeish. Google it and you’ll learn all about it.  It’s really interesting but so is followership, which is an idea which might be new to you.  Last week I ran an away day on followership for Westminster Tri Borough Public Health Team which is headed up by Dr Peter Brambleby.

So what is a follower?  Well it’s not a personality type, it’s a behaviour that we all use from time to time.   Followers do not serve leaders, they serve a common purpose, mission and values, ones that they share with the leader, an argument developed by Ira Chaleff, a key author on the subject .  This is the fundamental difference to a traditional hierarchical style of management.  A followership style emphasises service to a mission, taking away the emphasis on the power differential which is inherent in hierarchical relationships.  At the same time it does not ignore hierarchical relationships.

Leaders who foster and encourage a followership style of management are often viewed as a deliverer of change rather than a charismatic leader.  It’s probably why we like to talk about strong leaders and focus on the concept endlessly.  However, for me the smart money is on followership.  To gain an insight into what it means in practice, it’s useful to look at the 5 sets of behaviours needed to be a courageous follower and 6 behaviours for leaders to employ to encourage good followership as laid down by Chalef.

Five sets of behaviours that comprise courageous followership

  1. The courage to assume responsibility
  2. The courage to support the leader
  3. The courage to challenge unproductive behaviours or policies of the leaders
  4. The courage to participate in transformation
  5. The courage to take a moral stand.

To encourage good followership a leader should:

  1. Place people around you who will tell you what they see, not what they think you want to see
  2. Always pose ideas for change by saying ‘I’m considering this’ not ‘this is what we’re going to do’.
  3. Always ask what they may be missing or not seeing
  4. Listen carefully, give others responsibilities to manage or take on risk
  5. Question the reasoning of followers with respect, seek to understand and verify not to humiliate
  6. Make your decisions based on information in any given case, not on risks that you have got away with.

Being a follower can be challenging, it places responsibility on all team members to contribute, including the responsibility to speak out.  Wouldn’t that be a great culture in many organisations?

We focus on bringing about better outcomes for our clients.  Often we work with groups in collaborative settings.  Working collaboratively generates the most success when we have shared goals and ambitions.  Working collaboratively means that leadership needs to be shared on occasions, and an understanding and commitment to followership is very useful.

To go back to last week- why a followership day?  Public health is now becoming embedded in local authorities.  This results in bringing collaborative approaches to centre stage.  Understanding the concept of followership and its commitment to a common goal will engender more fruitful and successful collaborations. I like it a lot.

Have a great week.


PS you’ve probably guessed this but geese are great followers too!