When looking at an office environment or a community committee, it may sometimes be difficult to appreciate the necessity and the interplay between leader and follower roles. But in the world of dance, it’s unmistakable.
Followership author Ira Chaleff put together a fabulous analogy using the example of tango. You can watch the video lesson here:(You can view a full playlist of followership videos here. You can also view Chaleff’s own reflections on this tango video and my further thoughts in this post: Lead or Follow: which is easier?)
The dance partners, Sharna & Isaac, illustrate a variety of flavors of following: graceful following, weak following, self-serving following, and fighting following. They also demonstrate for us what can happen when a leader loses focus and stumbles and the role a strong follower can play.
In the positive examples, of graceful following and strong following, they highlight what happens when both roles are fully engaged, when each plays his/her part in keeping things moving. It’s only when each role is appropriately fulfilled that the dance as a whole carries on successfully as something mutually enjoyable, fantastically creative, and which achieves its intended purpose.
The negative examples feature what happens when the follower (in particular) steps out of bounds for what it means to engage in excellent followership. Weak following shows that followership is definitely not a passive role, devoid of responsibility. The dynamic doesn’t flourish if the follower disengages and the leader has to do all the work; as Isaac testifies, “it felt restrictive and heavy”. Excellent followers should fulfill their roles so as not to be a burden, but rather a fully contributing member of the ensemble.
On the other hand, a follower that engages too forcefully–either from self-serving motives or in opposition to the leader–does at least as much damage, if not more so, to the beauty of the dance. Edging out the leader, so that there is no place for him/her to utilize their gifts and talents, or overwhelming the vision to form it in our own image leads to dishonoring and disempowering the leader, which results in dehumanizing them and missing out on the value of their strengths.
It is significant to note that “the approach of the follower can influence the creative potential of the leader.” Although we sometimes envision team dynamics simply as “leader + followers”, this demonstrates that there is a much more intricately woven interconnection between the two roles. A leader cannot function optimally irregardless of how the follower role is carried out; followers have the opportunity to enhance or hinder the leader’s excellent fulfillment of their role.
Although there often is some degree of hierarchy present between the two roles, more fundamental is the truth that the roles of leader and follower are complementary, “a conversation in which we help each other make our own unique contributions to the dance.”
Following with excellence entails understanding and embracing our role of followership, fulfilling it with the highest degree of excellence, in order to facilitate the best contributions from both our leader and our fellow followers, and to encourage the best possible outcome of our shared endeavors.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017).