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Followership: why it’s becoming more important than leadership

You may hear employee engagement experts say there is no such thing as an organisation; it is merely a collective of people all moving towards a common outcome and the success of the organisation is dependent on the success of the individuals and their team.

This notion is causing organisational leaders to change their direction of focus, from themselves to how they develop followership – engaging their followers in the organisation’s future.

What is followership?

Today’s high performing leaders are people who others want to follow. Their teams have

followership; working with their leader, for them, doing what it takes, following in their path. Like gravity, the leaders’ followers are drawn to them, passionate about the same cause and aware of their part in making things happen.

To enable followership the leader must create conditions for people to want to follow and do

what it takes for the team to engage, work collectively, cohesively and be successful.

Successful leaders focus on their followers not themselves and flex their approach from a place of complete awareness to ensure that each one of their followers is engaged.

They are present, communicate well and often, build resonance, relationships and have their

finger on the pulse.

How do you define different types of followers and identify those who will or won’t help your organisation thrive?

In her book How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, Barbara Kellerman

explores this concept and details the different types of follower that the leader or manager must flex their style to. By defining them, she helps leaders and managers understand and identify the different types so they can build strategies to maximise and enable their engagement to create a cohesive team.

The five types of follower defined by Barbara are as follows:

Diehards – are passionate and will give their all for the team or the cause.

Activists – feel strongly about their team and the cause and will act accordingly. They are

eager, energetic and engaged.

Participants – care and try to make an impact if they agree with the leader. However, if they

disagree, they may well oppose.

Bystanders – are disengaged. They watch from the sidelines as an observer and offer little

active support.

Isolated – care little for their leader or the cause. They do their jobs within the remit and keep their head down.

How do you manage and enable those who could unlock your team cohesion and

organisational success?

Diehards and activists are a gift to any leader. They simply want autonomy, mastery and full

awareness of how they can make a difference to the organisation’s success.

Empower them at every opportunity. Let them set the benchmarks, objectives and ways of

working because you can trust them to get on with it and do a brilliant job. Equip your managers with exceptional communication and coaching skills, so they unlock the possibilities through productive performance conversations.

On the other hand, participants take flexibility and focus. When leading change with them,

spend time exploring the benefits and why it’s important. Explore not only how the change will work for them and the team but what it will remove that they don’t want, and how it will move them away from that.

These people benefit from investment because they often form the majority and influence the

bystander and isolated followers.

Can you influence change in mindset among bystanders and isolated follower types?

Of course, with effort, communication skills and emotional intelligence the attitudes of these

people can be changed. The question is do you want them to be? Do you have a hunch they

could be changed if you could just flick a mental switch? If so, go for it. As Jim Collins would

say: “Keep them ‘on the bus’.”

These people need to know not only why they are important, but that they are cared for and play a key part in the organisation. They need depth of understanding into why the change or focus may be beneficial for them. Take time to give these people the opportunity to engage by properly listening to them. Try to understand their challenges and encourage them to explore what they want instead and what they think better practice might look like.

Today’s leader knows that the follower is a key component in enabling organisational success. En mass, engaged followers are what make the difference to the potential and possibility of an organisation, so take time to engage your followers no matter which category you feel they fit into.

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