What comes first – great leaders or great followers?


Sharing by furiousgeorge81.  Source: Flickr.
Sharing by furiousgeorge81. Source: Flickr.

Jye Smith‘s post Great Leaders, Great Followers on his blog A Digital Perspective
echoed many of the sentiments I feel about leadership and ‘followership’ – and what indeed does come first great leaders or great followers (or as Jye calls them supporters)? Can you have one without the other?

Inspired in part by 10 ways to be a great follower (which is a fantastic post) Jye states

Maybe the qualities of great leaders and great supporters aren’t so different?
By providing a platform of understanding and embrace, you’re doing a large part of what you can to be led, and likewise, a large part of what you can to lead.

To be a great leader you also need to be a great follower. This goes beyond the management and leadership debate and instead recognises the value and importance of leadership across all levels, both horizontally and vertically, within an organisation.

Follower is an uncomfortable term but implies greater participation than simply supporter. Support can be inactive, where as following implies action and participation. For example I think we all support the efforts of charities such as World Vision, but how many of us donate and/ or become invested and follow the charities activities?

A great follower:

  • Self manages well
  • Is committed: both to the organisation and to the purpose which brought the leader and follower together
  • Works with others to reach organisational goals – without needing star billing
  • Builds their capability and focuses their efforts for maximum impact and
  • Is courageous, honest and credible.

From these, you can see that the attributes of a follower are shared with that of a leader and as such through building effective followership skills, leadership capabilities are also fostered.

A follower plays an active contributing role whereas a leader leads other individuals in the collaborative effort – however both have shared responsibility for outcomes (differing from accountability which generally falls to the leader rather than the whole team).

Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett Packard describes this as ‘leadership as a team sport’ – and is based on the concept of shared leadership. This moves beyond organisational hierarchies and creates leaders at all levels throughout the organisation – recognising that succes relies upon individuals, teams, and departments working in collaboration both vertically and horizontally across the organisation. In shared leadership the roles of leader and follower are not mutually exclusive or static roles – nor is one afforded more status or importance than the other. Staff members should be able to flexibly move in and out of leader and follower roles as required. The relationship between the two roles is symbiotic being in one or the other role depends on the situation or organisational need.

Shared leadership requires courage at the top of an organisation to relinquish control and flatten heirarchies to allow all organisational leaders (not just managers) to make decisions as appropriate. For me, the strength of a great leader recognises the potential in others and works to bring that to the fore.  A great leader enables a great follower.

Like the old adage – behind every great man stands a great woman…behind every great leader stands a great follower.  Committed, engaged and capable followers, enable great leaders.

So what does come first – a great leader or a great follower?

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5 thoughts on “What comes first – great leaders or great followers?

  1. Leadership is simple. I mean really mindbogglingly simple. It consists of doing & listening. It doesn’t matter which one you start with. Just pick one. Then the other. And so forth.

    We make it complicated because we are afraid to act and unable to listen. Those who find doing easy often find listening difficult & vice versa.

    Do. Listen. Do. Listen.

    There. Easy.

  2. “So what does come first – a great leader or a great follower?”

    Some dances have a fixed leader & a follower. In other dances, the roles of leader & follower flicker backwards & forwards between the dancers.

    We talk of leaders as though they are solid, permanent things rather than leadership – moments that jump between people. Something ephemeral not permanent.

  3. Nice one. Lots to think about and I think that you’re right in many ways. The trust between the leader and follower must be one of the crucial aspects. The leader to trust the follower to do the best they can and the follower to trust the leader to give the freedom or support whenever it is required.

  4. Hullo!
    Great post 🙂

    I particularly like this bit:

    “Staff members should be able to flexibly move in and out of leader and follower roles as required.”

    This is vital, an organisation that fosters an environment which encourages staff to take on leadership as required beyond the hierachy will be far more flexible and responsive.

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