Two years ago I made a profound transition. Having worked in the same organization since 2006 in various follower roles, I was asked to step into a formal leadership position.
The timing was ironic. I had recently completed the editing of the manuscript for my book, Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture, in which I several times had stated that I’m a follower (not a leader). When the organization needed to increase its capacity to provide better support for teams and having asked me to provide that support for those working in various parts of the UK, I found myself needing to update the book’s content as I had stepped into a new realm of responsibility.
Many people associate the leadership role with vision as a fundamental aspect, attribute, and responsibility. I am not a visionary, and thus in part didn’t think I could be/should be a leader. Certainly, once asked to step into a leadership role, vision wasn’t one of the primary contributions I would be making.
So I brought my followership perspective instead.
I identified three primary aims for my supervisory/support role (“Area Leader”), all of which flowed from my own experience as a team/organization member.
1.) I want to foster relationships within the area, both between myself and the various team leaders and members, but also to encourage broader and deeper relationships between themselves.
I believe that both leadership and followership is relationship, and in order to accomplish anything more significant than mere functioning, a network of relationship would be necessary.
2.) I want everyone’s organizational affiliation to be something substantial and positive.
I stepped into a situation where a merger had recently taken place, and as a result, there were a number of employees who were a bit on the fringes of the combined organization. It was a marriage of two very different modes of operating, despite having a shared vision, and some people fell through the cracks and struggled to find where they fit, with the result that they were working in largely isolated contexts, spinning in their own orbits.
We had to rebuild identity as a new family, and to make our mutual affiliation something that was meaningful; associating with an organization should create impacts on us personally and professionally.
But I also wanted to ensure that identification was something positive. In the wake of a merger, it is easy for some to feel victims of the process, forced into joining something that they didn’t sign up for because the “higher ups” decided it was best. (Imposed change is always going to meet some level of resistance.) I wanted to work to make our new joint venture into something composed not just of victims, but of collaborators and companions.
3.) I want everyone to have some experience of team.
As mentioned, a number of people were operating in primarily solo ventures. Not only is relationship essential for our best contributions, but more than that, operating within an interconnected community is a must. Whether that’s working closely alongside of others who have complementary abilities, or whether that’s working at a distance but having access to colleagues who can relate to your circumstances and provide a sounding board, being part of meaningful networks of some kind is something I believe to be critical.
It’s hard to believe I’m already two years in. My self-evaluation leads me to believe we’ve made great strides on all three of these points; I’ll see if others agree when I have my next annual evaluation from my subordinates at the end of this year.
But if we have indeed advanced our relational, organizational, and cooperative interconnectedness, there’s a next question: now what? What do we do with that connection, that affiliation, that identity?
I admitted earlier that I’m not a visionary. I’ve been able to play a role to stabilize things a bit and to foster some cohesiveness.
Here’s where I’ll turn to my subordinates. Believing that vision is not the sole purview of leaders means that I can work with and be open to those who work under me (and those who work under them) to discern together where we can go. What new capacity do we now have? What skills and opportunities do we still need? What contributions are necessary and possible in this next season?
I don’t yet know; but as followers and leaders, we’ll find out. And we’ll do it. Together.
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)
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