Followership: An Introduction

As engineers, we are routinely told to develop leadership skills as a means to set ourselves apart and further our careers. We’re told to learn how to win friends and influence people, how to negotiate, speak in public, and defuse frustrating situations. While those are all valuable skills, I feel most leadership programs leave out a fundamental layer of being a good leader, and that is first being a good follower.

Unfortunately, “follower” might as well be a dirty word in today’s landscape where everyone is supposed to be an entrepreneur and his/her own boss. It conjures images of drones taking orders, doing other people’s grunt work while that person gets the glory. It is associated with lacking motivation and drive to succeed.

But here is the truth… Every good leader is also a good follower. Think about it. CEOs are successful when they work with and follow their boards, management teams, and customers. Your immediate supervisor is great at his/her job because he/she not only follows his/her supervisor but also follows your needs and desires.  Everybody, regardless of status or rank, follows somebody else, or need to follow somebody else to get the current point in their career.

Make no mistake, being a good follower is not kissing butt or being a yes-man. Those people are annoying and bring little value to the table. And because they think incessant agreement will get them ahead faster than actually producing value added work, they quickly outgrow whatever usefulness they may have had in the first place.

Instead, successful followership requires a unique skill set, just as successful leadership does. Further, the two skillsets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they build upon each other. They’re parallel efforts, and can only be fully implemented when used together.

This series of posts will discuss, in detail, the followership skillset which includes:

  • Never shoot the messenger.
  • Figure out what you can do to make your coworkers’ or supervisors’ job easier.
  • Express your disagreement once, and then execute the plan to find a solution.
  • Support your supervisor and team members to the best of your ability.
  • Make your supervisor and team members look good.
  • Don’t grandstand at the expense of others.

As you can deduce, good followership is about putting the success of coworkers ahead of your personal ambition. In doing so you’ll gain a reputation of being the “go-to-guy”, as well as the respect of your peers that comes with it. And that in turn will make you the leader people want to follow.

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