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When great leaders need to be great followers

4 min read


After a year as president on a board of directors, I’m now officially the “immediate past president.” I’m learning to be more of a follower in this new role — sometimes doing OK, and at other times not so well. My rocky experience has prompted me to think about what it means to be a leader and a follower at the same time — an essential attribute for great leaders.

All leaders have obvious “others” they need to follow. Every one of us has someone to answer to. Even the most senior organizational executives report to someone in the company. CEOs have their board and shareholders. The president of the United States has voters.

But what can we say about our most common pyramidal organizational structures where a manager/leader is “in charge”? Are there elements of followership that are important to their ability to be a great leader? I believe there is, and that incorporating elements of followership with your stakeholders is a significant sign of a seasoned leader and central to your ability to be a great leader.

Some thoughts on how you can incorporate followership into your leadership:

  • Know when to step back and let someone else lead. Yes, there are times when you just can’t be the leader. Recognize when someone else has something important to say, do or show. Showcase their leadership even when it might be uncomfortable to you to step back; it’ll go a long way toward developing relationships and helping new leaders emerge.
  • Be coachable. A leader who is a follower is open to being coached by anyone. Organizational managers of people know who their best employees are — they are the ones who can be coached to their strength and accept feedback respectfully when correction is needed. They are actively trying to improve their performance, and take action to correct missteps and mistakes. A leader who is also a follower is coachable.
  • Be approachable. Make others comfortable in your presence. Sometimes you need to let your guard down and open yourself up to others, even when they are your adversaries. Get out there, greet people, ask them about their day or their concerns. Treat everyone with respect, no matter where they sit in the organization.
  • Listen and encourage new ideas from others. The best leader-followers listen well and provide encouragement when new ideas come forth. They recognize that they don’t have all the answers. They are open to doing new things, are willing to put their best foot forward to understand others’ viewpoints and inspire the best from everyone.
  • Let go when the fight isn’t worth it. Great leader-followers pick their battles strategically. When minor things happen that bother them or aren’t a priority vis-à-vis the organizational mission, they realize the fight isn’t worth stepping into. However, when the mission is off track, ethics are not followed or values are violated, they are willing to step into battle.
  • Support others on the team. Great leader-followers do what team members should do: support others. It doesn’t matter whether the team consists of their peers, the senior leaders in the organization, or their direct reports. They roll up their sleeves and get to work to help others, moving the team in the direction it needs to go.

Model all the above behaviors for others. Great leader-followers are wonderful role models, moving seamlessly between leadership and followership as the occasions demands. They know exactly which hat to put on at any time, and do so with grace.

What would you add to this list? When have you had to change hats from leader to follower?