Followership, as defined by John S. McCallum, “is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.”

When I first heard of followership, I immediately rejected the concept. My parents have told me, since birth, that I was a leader. It almost became an excuse for why the other kids didn’t like me or why the other girls my age bullied me: Zoe, you’re just a leader. Not a follower.

In the words of my parents, followers are people who go with the pack. The people who take drugs and succumb to peer pressure. Followers are the answer to the question if so and so jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too? 

However, as I read the article in the Ivey Business Journal, I concluded that Followership is not behind or beneath leadership. I believe it is leadership adjacent. As I read further, I recognized myself in the characteristics listed.

McCallum outlined eight qualities of a good follower, and begrudgingly, I acknowledged that I possessed some of those characteristics.

Judgement.  Followers must take direction but they have an underlying obligation to the enterprise to do so only when the direction is ethical and proper.  The key is having the judgement to know the difference between a directive that your leader gives on how to proceed that you do not agree with and a directive that is truly wrong.

As I previously mentioned, my parents stressed good judgment from a young age. We were given the freedom to make our own decisions, but they tried to teach us right and wrong. I believe I have good judgment and a moral code to which I adhere.

Work ethic.  Good followers are good workers.  They are diligent, motivated, committed, pay attention to detail and make the effort.  Leaders have a responsibility to create an environment that permits these qualities but regardless, it is the responsibility of the follower to be a good worker.  There is no such thing as a bad worker who is a good follower.

I work hard, and I do excellent work. I strive to do my best on the smallest of tasks, and I never intentionally do less than my best on a project.

Competence.  The follower cannot follow properly unless competent at the task that is directed by the leader.  It is the obligation of the leader to assure that followers are competent.  Sometimes things go wrong because the follower is not competent at the task at hand.  When this happens, leaders should blame themselves, not the follower.  A sign of poor leadership is blaming followers for not having skills they do not have.

As my mother says, my core competency is competency. I am very vocal that I am the wrong person for a task if I am not competent at it. If I am adhering to the principles of Followership, then I am only making it easier for a leader to find a task that I am competent in.

Honesty.  The follower owes the leader an honest and forthright assessment of what the leader is trying to achieve and how.  This is especially the case when the follower feels the leader’s agenda is seriously flawed.  Respect and politeness are important but that said, it is not acceptable for followers to sit on their hands while an inept leader drives the proverbial bus over the cliff.  Good leaders are grateful for constructive feedback from their team.  Bad leaders do not welcome feedback and here followers have to tread carefully.  If the situation is serious enough, consideration should be given to going above the leader in question for guidance.

I am honest; sometimes brutally so. I have no issue telling someone they are wrong or if I disagree with what they say. I value honesty and feedback, and therefore, I will not refrain or bite my tongue for the sake of politeness. Sometimes, that gets me in trouble, but as Representative John Lewis says, there is such a thing as good trouble.

Courage.  Followers need to be honest with those who lead them.  They also need the courage to be honest.  It takes real courage to confront a leader about concerns with the leader’s agenda or worse, the leader himself or herself.  It is not for naught that Churchill called courage “The foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend”.  From time to time, it takes real courage to be a good follower.

“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I, therefore, award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”

I can be honest even when the situation gets tough. I am not afraid to speak my mind if someone is wrong. Courage is a virtue, as is honesty, and the two go hand in hand. If courage and honesty make me a good follower, then so be it.

Discretion.  A favorite saying in World War II was “Loose lips sink ships.”  Sports teams are fond of the expression “What you hear here, let it stay here.”  Followers owe their enterprises and their leaders discretion.  Talking about work matters inappropriately is at best unhelpful and more likely harmful.  Discretion just means keeping your mouth shut.  It should be easy but many find it next to impossible.  Bluntly, you cannot be a good follower and be indiscreet.  Everybody who works at an enterprise has a duty of care; indiscretion is not care, it is careless.

My dad sometimes says, “this stays in the family.” That means there’s some important business or secret that he had to tell me, but I wasn’t allowed to tell my friends. My friends know me as someone who can keep a secret. However, I am not the kind of person who keeps secrets that can harm others. Lately, in the media, whistleblowers have been making waves for breaking confidentiality and revealing the horrible things their corporations do. Discretion, to some extent, can be valuable. But here I disagree with McCallum: free-thinking, honesty, and bravery are more important than discretion.

Loyalty.  Good followers respect their obligation to be loyal to their enterprise.  Loyalty to the enterprise and its goals is particularly important when there are problems, interpersonal or otherwise, with a particular leader.  Followers who are not loyal are inevitably a source of difficulty.  They create problems between team members; they compromise the achievement of goals; they waste everybody’s time; they are a menace.  Loyalty is not a synonym for lapdog.  Rather, its essence is a strong allegiance and commitment to what the organization is trying to do.  Followers should remember that their obligation is to the enterprise, not a given leader at a given point in time.

I am loyal, often to a fault. Sometimes nonsensically, in the case of brand loyalty. I have never seen myself as a ‘lapdog’ for my loyalty. Instead, I have seen it as one of my greatest strengths. I am loyal to my friends. I am loyal to my family. I am loyal to my school. I am loyal to my sports teams– Go Pens! If I join an organization, it is because I have placed my trust and respect in that organization, and I will be loyal to them unless they wrong me.

Ego management.  Good followers have their egos under control.  They are team players in the fullest sense of the concept.  They have good interpersonal skills.  Success for good followers relates to performance and goal achievement, not personal recognition and self-promotion.  Sounds too good to be true and often it is.  It is difficult but the best organizations tie advancement and reward to performance and goal achievement as hard as that may be to do.

I often have trouble keeping my ego in check, and that is a personal problem that I have been working on for a very long time. I need to learn to derive my achievement from reaching my goals and acknowledging my own hard work, not from the recognition and approval of others. If I can strive towards ego management, I think it will not only make me a better follower but a better leader.

In conclusion, I still don’t 100% agree with the principles of followership. While reading the article, I found myself aligning more with the managers in the situation than the worker. However, unless I become the head of an organization (which I strive towards) I will always be managed. Until then, I think I can be an excellent leader by acknowledging the qualities of a good follower.

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