The Benefits of Followership


As we celebrate the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays, it is appropriate to reflect on the qualities necessary to be a good leader. The legacies of some of America’s renowned generals appear to be a good place to start.

Andrew Laurie

Andrew Laurie

Leaders get all the credit.

Nearly 100,000 soldiers and sailors followed Alexander the Great during his Asian Campaign. Yet his is the only name we remember.

Countless individuals worked day and night, weekdays and weekends to make the I-Phone a reality. But who receives credit other than Steve Jobs?

While you could probably fill a medium sized city with individuals who have served more than 300 billion McDonalds hamburgers, founder Ray Kroc is the only one of them we memorialize.

In Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting (who knew that name until this moment?), Washington Crossing the Delaware, the resolute leader leans in while his unnamed oarsmen gamely push through water and ice.

The great man, who is often composed of equal parts daring, charisma and unfailing confidence, naturally draws our attention. Those who follow him just as naturally fade into the background.

While I have no intention of questioning our need for leaders in just about every human endeavor, I would like to join with others in shifting some of the credit (and, in some cases, blame) to the many often forgotten people who follow these leaders.

Earlier this year, The New York Times featured an article titled “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.” Susan Cain, the author, wrote: “Our elite schools overemphasize leadership partly because they’re preparing students for the corporate world, and they assume this is what businesses need. But a discipline in organizational psychology, called “followership,” is gaining in popularity.”

Ms. Cain continued, “Some focus on the “romance of leadership” theory, which causes us to inaccurately attribute all of an organization’s success and failure to its leader, ignoring its legions of followers.”

When we count the number of employees working at our largest corporations, our need for them to cheerfully follow someone else’s lead becomes clear. IBM: 377,760. General Motors: 225,000. Toyota: 348,877. Chaos would ensue if every one of Microsoft’s more than 120,000 employees report for work each morning while imagining him or herself a mini Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer, rather than dedicating themselves to the execution of strategies put into place by Microsoft’s leadership team.

Even accomplished leaders must be skilled followers. Although Norman Schwartzkopf led all coalition forces during the Gulf War, he himself followed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, who followed Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who followed President Bush, who followed Ronald Reagan as his Vice President before becoming the 41 st President. If these men were unable to follow the lead set by their superiors, their own missions would have ended in failure.

Early last year, Forbes magazine featured an article titled “Why Followership Is Now More Important Than Leadership.” The author, Rob Asghar, seeded these thoughts regarding leadership and followership:

Good followers nurture good leaders. Consider the situation in which a company hires a new leader. This leader may possess all the personal and professional attributes to help the company achieve success. However, it only stands to reason his or her first few months will be spent climbing a learning curve. Generous followers can help the new leader quickly climb this curve so he or she can begin to make a positive difference for all members of the organization. By understanding his or her success depends on followers’ goodwill and guidance, a skilled, thoughtful leader will consciously solicit it.

Good leaders nurture followers.
Who doesn’t applaud the young man or woman who appears ready to assume the mantle of leadership? They get placed in offices with a clear line to the corner office, and are assigned glamorous accounts. The skilled leader, though, will also support valuable employees who do not seek the spotlight. These individuals may be better suited to leading with their brains or emotional IQ, rather than through force of will and personality. Good leaders nurture all followers, not just those who are most easily seen.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who enjoyed a wide radio and television audience during the past century, would remind his listeners and viewers, “There is no pleasure without pain, no Easter without Good Friday.” We can add there are no leaders without followers. If one cannot exist without the other, we must conclude both are equally valuable. We must also conclude both deserve our support.

Our insurance industry enjoys the good fortune of employing a great many talented followers. State Farm: 65,000. Liberty Mutual: 50,000. Allstate: 50,632. Geico: 36,000. Progressive: 25,000. Willis Towers Watson: 40,000. AON: 50,000. These seven companies, alone, employ more than 315,000 followers. By establishing programs to help these employees become better followers, we will be leading our industry to a better, brighter future. I suggest we remember the following:

  • Technology, for better and for worse, challenges our industry as we plan for the future. We must depend upon our leaders to dedicate proper amounts of strategic resources if we are to claim a leadership role in this future. We must equally depend on the followers who will make thousands of decisions and take thousands of actions as they deploy these resources. By nurturing these followers, we are increasing the likelihood they will make good decisions joined by proper actions.
  • When interviewing risk management candidates, keep in mind the overwhelming majority of new recruits will be hired to follow rather than to lead. This is not to suggest select individuals who assume followership positions won’t also be called upon to lead. For example, individuals who follow the lead set by senior management may also lead internal departments. They may also lead committees and internal initiatives. What I am suggesting is don’t pass over candidates who possess otherwise excellent qualifications due to a perceived deficiency in leadership qualities if you aren’t interviewing for a leadership position.
  • Just as too many cooks crowd the kitchen, too many leaders will inevitably crowd the corner office. Properly managed businesses strike a delicate balance between leadership and followership.
  • By placing undue emphasis on the importance of leadership, we diminish the importance of followership. Followers will always vastly outnumber leaders. It will never make sense to nurture the few while overlooking the many.
  • By fetishizing leadership, we run the risk of perpetuating a destructive caricature. The forceful leader who makes quick decisions and takes no advice is a popular trope. However, it describes only one leadership style and so is one-dimensional. It also discourages a brave, open, healthy dialogue between leaders and their followers.
  • Develop reward and recognition systems to encourage skilled followership. These will help to remove the stigma from dedicating oneself to being a good follower. Plus, because leaders will always outnumber followers, these mechanisms will help followers take pride in their accomplishments while easing their frustrations over their failure to assume leadership positions. There can only be one boss.

Each year a great many books, articles and podcasts offering tips on how to become an effective leader are added to an already mountainous pile. Since we need leaders to achieve great things, I welcome them all. However, I would hope thinkers increasingly turn their efforts to strategies and advice regarding followership during the years ahead. After all, somebody has to get the work done.

Andrew Laurie is an Account Manager at KMRD Partners, Inc., a risk and human capital management consulting and insurance brokerage firm with locations in the Philadelphia region serving clients worldwide.

(reprinted from Carrier Management)

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