One idea that has seemed to permeate leadership conversations from the last decade is that the best leaders first learned to be the best followers. For the next few minutes, instead of thinking about your leadership, think about what kind of follower you are.

A lot has been written on the topic of what it takes be be an effective leader.  Every author has their short-list of the top qualities, skills or behaviors that they use to quantify what good leadership looks like. One idea that has seemed to permeate leadership conversations from the last decade is that the best leaders first learned to be the best followers.

Practically speaking the vast majority of people reading about and seeking to grow in their leadership are in a position where they are both leading someone and following someone.  For the next few minutes, instead of thinking about your leadership think about what kind of follower you are.  Consider the following marks of the best followers.

The Best Followers Get Clarity on Expectations

Good followers have clarity on what their boss is asking them to do.   The less clear you are on expectations, the less chance you have of actually accomplish what’s being asked of you.   When that happens it may seem to your boss like you’re pushing back, lazy, incompetent, unmotivated, or trying to undermine or sidestep responsibilities.  The best followers are intentional about seeking clarity whenever necessary.  That’s what prepares them to be the best leaders.

The Best Followers Follow Through

Do what you’re asked to do.  One of the hardest things for followers to recognize is that they often have a limited perspective.  The leader is often seeing and considering things that the followers may not even be aware of.  The higher the level of leadership, the higher the level of responsibility.  Increased responsibility typically results in increasingly complex decision-making.  What leaders need is followers who trust them enough to do what they’re asked to do.

This does not mean following blindly.  This doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions.  Remember, we just said that the best followers seek clarity.

  • Q: What if I disagree with my boss?
  • A: The best bosses will create room for discussion.  Leaders who don’t listen find themselves surrounded by people with nothing important to say.  However, as the follower, if you’re working for a boss who doesn’t allow discussion and you disagree you have a couple of options.
    • Offer them an alternative that will still give them what they want.  Ask “What are you wanting?  What’s the end game?”  Suggest, “Maybe there’s a better way to get there.”
    • If you still can’t follow through then have the integrity to say so.   Every leader, if they are to be successful needs to be surrounded buy a team that will buy-in, or have the courage to opt-out.

The Best Followers Are Servants

This is primarily a state of mind.  See what needs to be done and do it. Take ownership and take initiative.  Don’t shrink away from a task simply because it’s not in your job description. Find ways to help.

Job descriptions are given so that people know what to do and how to serve on a team. It helps them focus on the roles and responsibilities that need to be fulfilled.  It helps them know that they are doing the right things the right way.

However, leaders don’t want people to be motivated only by their job descriptions. They need people who are motivated by the mission and vision of the organization.  If you are bound by your job description instead of the mission you will never look for ways to help or lead outside of what is written out for you. Growing leaders, no matter what their official job title is, need to feel the responsibility (and freedom) to help the organization fulfill its mission anywhere they can.

The Best Followers Are Humble

In our culture we often mistake the person up front for the leader.  The truth is the best leaders don’t always need the spotlight to be an effective leader.  In fact, most of them are very quick to give it away by empowering other people.  Be quick to give credit to your team.  If and when the compliment comes, don’t deflect it. Simply say “thank you” and move on.  Think about it like this; the best followers do what they do quietly. So do the best leaders.

The Best Followers Are Loyal

There is nothing worse than a boss who gives the “loyalty” speech.  At the same time, there’s nothing more damaging to morale and workplace relationships than a lack of loyalty.  There is a strong correlation between workplace loyalty and workplace morale.

There is an element of trust here.  As a follower, you have to trust that your boss has your best interest and the best interest of the organization in mind.  In your role as a follower you are called to help achieve the mission/vision of the organization.  Be loyal to that.

Finally, know the difference between public and private conversations.  Support in public.  Discuss in private.  Never speak ill of your boss or coworkers.  If you can’t do this it may be time to move on.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Can you think of a time when you moved forward on a task or project without getting the clarity you needed?  What was the outcome?  How much time and/or money could have been saved by having a few clarifying conversations?
  4. Do you currently have clarity on what your boss is asking you to do?
  5. When is the last time you disagreed with your boss?  How did you handle it?  Would you do anything differently if you could do it again?
  6. When is the last time that someone you’re leading disagreed with you?  How did they handle it?  What are some of the challenges that presented to you as a leader?
  7. Do you agree or disagree that the best leaders can do what they do quietly? Explain or find examples?
  8. As a follower, have you done anything to undermine loyalty and/or morale?  What happens when you talk bad about the boss with the people you work with?
  9. What kind of follower are you?
  10. If everyone you’re leading where the kind of follower you are, would your job be easier or more difficult?
  11. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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