Is 'great followership' the real secret to great leadership?

As long as we fixate on leaders at the expense of followers, we will perpetuate the myth that followers don’t matter much

Editor’s and Author’s Note: Val Van Brocklin and I would like to thank U.S. Fish & Wildlife Refuge Manager Ann Marie Timberman for suggesting that PoliceOne look more deeply into the concept of “followership.” Watch for more on this topic in coming months. 
— Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief 

Leaders don’t accomplish the mission. Followers do. So why is it that all the attention, time, money, and resources are spent on developing leaders? Why aren’t we also developing great followers? 

Maybe it’s because “great followers” sounds like a paradox in our culture. America is about celebrities, heroes, and individualism. What’s the first image that pops into your mind when you think follower? A sheep, a lemming, a faceless-one-of-many? 

Followership is not something most of us aspire to. 

The Corollary to Leadership 
As Don Mercer recently wrote in Followership: The Corollary to Leadership there’s a built-in assumption in our culture that everyone should strive to be a leader. That’s where glory lies. We can get a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership, but I doubt we’d find even an Associate Degree in Followership. 

Leadership development is BIG business — a $50 billion industry. And that raises some important questions.

We seem to ignore the untapped resource of developing empowered followers, and few professional development programs or even in-service trainings spend time on how to develop an effective followership culture or skills. It’s as if the lone leader casts his or her magic wand and miracles happen without much — if any — attention paid to the followers doing the heavy lifting. So ask yourself:

•    What does that communicate about their value to the agency and the mission? 
•    Does all this focus on developing leaders nurture the wrong-headed thinking that being a great follower is not quite cutting it? 
•    And what about followers who work around failures of leadership to accomplish the mission?

The Rising Phoenix of Followership
Robert Kelley challenged the exclusive primacy of leadership research, training and development in his Harvard Business Review article "In Praise of Followers" (a best-selling reprint for HBR). 

More recently, Harvard University scholar Barbara Kellerman wrote in her 2008 book Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, that as “long as we fixate on leaders at the expense of followers, we will perpetuate the myth that [followers] don’t matter much... In fact, as a result of forces now converging, followers are more important than ever before.”

Those forces include scandalously-failed political, economic, financial, and spiritual leadership on a global scale. 

The United States Air Force decided that its focus on leadership development, while overlooking the development of a valued followership culture and skills, failed to optimize institutional performance. Lt. Colonels Sharon M. Latour and Vicki J. Rast bolster this conclusion in an informative, well-supported two-part article on Dynamic Followership.  

One of the things the authors looked at was how Air Force retention rates amongst “followers” were a persistent problem. The service sought to retain 55 percent of first-term airmen, 75 percent of second-term airmen, and 95 percent of the career enlisted force. It had failed to meet these goals for all three noncommissioned categories since 1996 (with the exception of 2002 when stop-loss measures prevented separation actions). 

Air Force efforts to raise retention numbers focused on tangible, transactional issues such as better pay, housing and base facilities. While important, Latour and Rast noted these initiatives failed to address the important role individual followers play in accomplishing the mission.

They concluded: “Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of worker dissatisfaction, follower-development programs should take advantage of opportunities to instill/reinforce institutional values, model effective follower roles and behaviors, and begin the mentoring process.” 

Leadership development has moved from transactional (economic exchange of material goods for services of the subordinate) to transformational (enlisting others in a united effort to meet higher, intangible needs) theories and models. 

The authors recommend a similar strategy for followership development — a strategy they believe is more essential to mission success than leader development. And, just as leader development proposes competencies, skills, desirable traits, and educational programs and training to advance them — so, too, must any effective follower development program.

Followership in Policing
I’ve worked with law enforcement officers for more than 25 years. As someone who trains on leadership, I know I’ve committed some level of heresy in the above article. So be it. It’s time we trimmed some fat from the sacred cow of “leadership development.”

I’ve been as guilty as the rest of the profession in neglecting followership as a discreet resource worthy of separate training and development.

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