Good leaders need good followers. Some tips on 'followership'

Everyone complains about a lack of leadership. But where are the schools proclaiming that they will educate tomorrow's followers?

Crosscut archive image.

President Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden.

Everyone complains about a lack of leadership. But where are the schools proclaiming that they will educate tomorrow's followers?

Perhaps you’ve noticed leadership is all the rage. We cry out for leaders. We lament the absence of “real” leaders. Candidates promise they are leaders.

If you visit a bookstore and ask for the section on “leadership” you will find it to be well-stocked. Try asking for the section on “followership.” Chances are good you will get a puzzled look.

Or take a look at the promotional literature from the high-powered, or would be high-powered, colleges and universities. All of them claim to be in the business of “educating tomorrow’s leaders.” Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine a college that would trumpet the business of “educating good followers.”

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a leader. But no one wants apparently to be a follower. Which may be the problem.

The truth is that leadership, however inspired or effective, is but a part of the whole. The other half of the equation, the other side of the coin, the yin for the yang, is good followership. What in the world is that? Paul Beedle, a Unitarian minister, describes “followership” as:

The discipline of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well. It is not submission, but the wise and good care of leaders, done out of a sense of gratitude for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense of hope and faith in their abilities and potential.

Beedle signals his awareness of a problem, at least in some quarters, with the whole notion of being a follower: that it means “submission.” It does not. Good followers are active, thinking, engaged, responsive. They think for themselves. And they value the role leaders play in helping organizations and institutions to be healthy and effective.

Beedle’s definition of “followership” signals something else, that being a good follower is a discipline. It is adult behavior. It entails impulse-control and capacity to manage expectations — qualities that seem in short supply these days. People are eloquent about their grievances, articulate about their needs, and insistent on their agendas. But discipline? Self-management? Restraint? Not our strong suit.

This is one reason that being a leader, at least one who’s responsible and knows it’s not all about himself or herself, is a tough job. We want leaders to deliver. Do we expect ourselves, as followers, to deliver too?

Based on my observation of organizations like schools, churches, civic groups and not-for-profits, here are a couple marks or qualities of good followers.

One, good followers do recognize that vital, healthy organizations need leadership. They value it. They understand that good leaders are key to keeping an organization vital and on-task. Without such leaders, organizations drift and decline often sets in. Leadership is valued.

Two, good followers work on managing their expectations. That doesn’t mean not having expectations. It’s not indifference or apathy. Have expectations for your leaders and organization, but reasonable ones. Manage your expectations and remember you’ve hired or elected a human being not the messiah.

Three, good followers not only think about their part of the enterprise, they also think at least some about the whole enterprise. That means that a teacher thinks not just about her classroom, but the whole school. It means the congregant thinks not just about the synagogue program he most loves, but about the whole synagogue and its mission.

Four, good followers are good at giving specific feedback. Feedback focuses on actions. It tells leaders, in specific ways, what you appreciate and find helpful about their way of leading. Good feedback also points out, again in specific terms, actions that haven’t been, at least in your view, as helpful or effective. But here the focus is on the action not the person. It’s not a personal attack, but a comment on actions or behaviors.

Are you a leader or a follower? Truth is, most of us are both. It depends on the time and place. In some situations, you are a leader or called to exercise leadership. In another, you are more in the role of a follower. That, too, is an important job. Sometimes, in my experience, the best followers are those who have been leaders and know just how tough it can be.

As we stress and value leadership, and properly so, it might be a good idea to not stop there, but to ask “What about good followership?” More than that, we might work on practicing it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.