One sentiment that has led to unhelpful division between leadership and followership is to believe that leaders are the ones who have (and sell) the vision, while followers are the ones who work to fulfill it.
When the organization’s leadership is setup as the only ones through whom vision can flow (I was part of one such organization), there is an inherent disempowering of followers, and an implicit message that vision–and thus the ultimate driving force behind any endeavor–is the purview of the leaders alone.
While the number of leadership positions in any group is likely to be limited by the structure and hierarchy that exist, the number of ‘owners’ of a project is not; anyone can experience personal dedication and concern for the success of an endeavor. Followers and leaders alike can exhibit profound ownership–regardless of where the idea originated from.
But this ownership must be encouraged, must be facilitated, must be permitted by leaders and others who are involved.
Dr. Timothy Laniak, in his book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks–reflections on life through the eyes and experience of shepherds and sheep–spends a chapter on “Working Together.” There, he offers three questions to test whether we have a truly shared vision, where more than just the leader (or originator) are on board and expressing ownership.
His questions are:
- Is the burden we expect others to share consuming us first?
- Is the work shared enough so that others are not simply watching us do most of the labor?
- Is it clear that joining us in self-sacrificial service is an expression of loyalty not so much to us personally, but to the [bigger picture]?
A few thoughts on each of these questions:
#1.) Vision doesn’t only come from the top; regardless of its origin, if it’s something “we’re” doing, then leaders need to be legitimate champions of the idea. Leaders cannot expect otherwise uninvolved followers to express ownership for an endeavor that comes across as a side issue for the overseers or for the organization as a whole.
Leaders themselves may need help developing their sense of ownership for a vision that was not their own. Whether it came from someone higher up, or from one of his/her subordinates, whoever currently has a sense of ownership has an important role to play in igniting passion in others by experiencing it and expressing it authentically themselves. The title of Chapter 7 of Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture is “Ownership: Passion in Action”; ownership is passion that is expressed, and thus shared with others, inviting them to join in.
#2.) And this notion of inviting in is key. If leaders–or even other followers–are tending to hoard both the vision and the activity, it will be impossible for others to get involved and to even have the opportunity for developing a sense of ownership.
Ownership doesn’t necessarily precede involvement. Lack of a sense of ownership is not permission to withdraw or remain unengaged. Good followers should participate and contribute whether or not they feel the personal passion to do so. However, if a sense of ownership can be developed, then the contribution, commitment, and satisfaction will all be enhanced.
While not everyone can be invited into leadership, everyone can be invited into the vision, invited into ownership. That must include meaningful contributions to make. A leader, or prominent follower, that reserves the most significant work, the most noticeable work, the most vital work for him/herself is almost assuredly restricting the multiplication of ownership amongst the other group members.
#3.) Some followers may be tempted to try and engender ownership in themselves as a way to demonstrate their support of a leader or colleague personally; whether because they believe they are obligated to support the leader, or whether they see offering support as a way to curry favor and perhaps further their own status within the organization, such pledges of involvement fall far short of true ownership.
Ownership of a vision or endeavor will ultimately stem from the place of deep personal concern. If you have joined a particular organization because of alignment between your personal values, vision, calling, and purpose and those that constitute the organization, then your ownership should be an overflow of that commitment, that desire to see the group’s aims fulfilled. This is far more powerful than merely being a member of a personality cult that is trying to please the leader or to make a name for oneself.
As leaders or followers, we have the opportunity to encourage ownership amongst any number of our peers. By living out our own passion, meaningfully opening the work to others, and calling everyone back to the overarching purposes that frame our organization, we open up opportunities to tap into one of the deepest reservoirs of valuable contribution and excellent followership.
See here for other thoughts on the topic of ownership.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)
Find other recommendations for various aspects of followership on our Resources page.
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