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5 Reasons Why Following Is More Important Than Leading

How followership fits into the leadership equation.

Ask any young person, or any employee, “would you rather be a leader or a follower?” Odds are that very few if any would pick follower over leader. Yet, as a leadership scholar, I am going to argue that following is critically important, and it is even more important than leadership.

1. Without Followers There Is No Leadership. Contrary to what people think, leaders don’t do leadership. Leadership is created by leaders and followers working together for a common goal (as the old saying goes, “leaders should look around now and then to make sure that they are still being followed”).

2. Followers Do Most of the Heavy Lifting. Think of the outcomes we measure in teams and organizations. Performance/productivity — it’s the collective effort of the team members/followers. High-performing teams tend to achieve goals whether or not the leader is present. Quality of performance means the team members are paying close attention to what they are doing. Absenteeism/turnover? That’s up to the followers when it’s voluntary. (And, as they say, most people quit their leaders, not their jobs).

3. Leaders Have to Be Good Followers. Research has shown that the best leaders are also good at following. That makes sense. Few people start out as leaders. They first learn about leadership by following someone else. Perhaps more important, leaders, regardless of the level of their positions, are always following – following the mission/purpose/goals, following their superior, and, in the case of CEOs, following the board or trusted advisors.

4. Followers Have Unlimited Potential. This is particularly true in tech industries where followers have much more collective knowledge than do leaders. Regardless of industry, however, any follower could come up with a critical innovation or valuable idea that can lead to fantastic results. Followers can also play a critical role as the “conscience” of the organization. As my friend and colleague, Ira Chaleff, states in the subtitle of his outstanding book, The Courageous Follower, followers have a duty to “Stand Up To and For Our Leaders.” This means following when the leader is headed down the right path, but having the courage to stand up to the leader when things are potentially amiss.

5. Followers Are the Next Generation of Leaders. As stated above, nobody begins as a leader. They learn about leadership through following. Moreover, the very best leaders are good at developing their followers – empowering them with responsibility judiciously in order to develop their leadership potential. The theory of Transformational Leadership points this out. These exceptional leaders help stimulate two types of transformation: achieving goals and performance that is beyond normal expectations, and transforming followers into budding leaders through delegation, mentoring, and coaching. As a great and transformational leader once told me, “the people who will succeed me are far better prepared for leadership than I was, because I made a point to ensure that that happened.”

Here are some links to learn more about transformational leadership and followership.

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Chaleff, I. (2009). The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and For Our Leaders (3rd. ed.), San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Riggio, R.E., Chaleff, I., & Lipman-Blumen, J.(Eds.). (2008). The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R.E., Lowe, K.B., & Carsten, M. (2014). Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 83-104.