Being a follower must be the easiest role in the world.
By many definitions, it’s leaders who are visionaries, who are burdened with a grand sense of where we need to go and how we need to get there. It’s also leaders who are the agents of change, the ones who bring about progress, improvement, achievement, and revolution.
If that’s true, then as a follower, there’s a fairly simple question: what’s left for me to do? What else needs to be done? If my leader is the (only) one with the vision and the one who effects the changes, then that leaves me with the role of…window dressing?
As I explore in Chapter 6 of Embracing Followership, among the various significant contributions of followership (and specifically, following with excellence) is lending credence to an endeavor; our association, our attachment, our involvement gives weight to a project and makes an idea a reality, a force to be reckoned with.
But surely our role is more than mere presence. It is not simply showing up, but participating, contributing, influencing. It is doing real work; not leaving things where they are, but putting our fingerprints on various projects, communications, and relationships. In so doing, we make them different. We create change.
Can that be? Rather than leaders being seen as the agents of change, could it be that followers–the dominant force (at least in numbers) of any organization–are most rightly seen as the change agents?
Max DePree, in his work Leadership Jazz, notes that one of the principles of change (which he challenges all leaders to be aware of) is “an organization’s capacity to change depends to a great degree on effective followership” (p.142).
Why would this be? Cynical leaders may say that it’s because unruly followers can do much to subvert change, to oppose it, to derail it, by clinging (in their non-visionary small-mindedness) to the status quo. ‘Effective followers’ (i.e. those that get with the leader’s program) are seen as necessary because a critical mass of stick-in-the-mud followers can inhibit the flow of inertia toward change.
I think there’s something more. Effective followership is necessary because followers play an active and vital role in change. Whether it’s participating in the process of decision-making (and decision-taking), or doing the physical work of creating documents or rearranging office furniture which actually manifests the envisioned change, followers are the actors, and not merely the audience, in the play of change.
And leaders are too. Leaders are also intrinsically involved, most often as the facilitators and communicators of change.
The position of leader, with a broad sphere of relationships (and responsibility) makes leadership essential to ensure the coordination of efforts in order to bring about change. Communication with various constituencies is crucial, in order to demonstrate that what’s being undertaken is “meaningful changes clearly connected to a strategy” (DePree, again).
By handling these facets of change, leaders employ themselves most effectively and enable followers to maximize their own engagement in the change process, without facing distraction from outsiders who would question the nature and process of the change. The leader runs interference, and also keeps the supply-lines open, so that excellent followers can effectively effect change.
In labeling leaders as the (sole) visionaries and change agents, we’re missing out on appreciating the complexity surrounding any process of change. And also grossly underestimating the amount of effort required. No individual–person or role–is sufficient for bringing about effective, lasting, positive change–and ensuring that those impacted accept it. Instead, the leader-follower dynamic, working cooperatively, is the true agent of change in any organization.
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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