Much is written about the importance of strong, visionary leaders.
But to have superior leaders, we must have excellent followers. They allow a leader's visions to become reality.If you're a follower, congratulate yourself. Being a follower does not necessarily mean you're a runner-up, a yes-man or a weakling. You have an important, often challenging role. You must understand and assume responsibility for your own power. But at the same time you must appreciate and support the strength of your leader.
Here are ways to be a valuable follower. They are from "The Courageous Follower," Ira Chaleff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995), and James Bleech, chairman of the Leadership Development Center, Jacksonville, Fla., and co-author of "Lets Get Results, Not Excuses" (Lifetime Books, Hollywood, Fla., 1995):
- Don't assume that leaders must be dominant. New models call for leaders to be more like facilitators than dictators. That means followers take a bigger role.
- Be loyal to the common principles and goals you and the leader share. Don't be loyal only to individuals. Chaleff sees common goals, leaders and followers as equal corners of a triangle.
- Insist on understanding where your leader is going, Bleech says. Ask questions until it becomes clear. You can't offer much support if you don't know where you're going.
- Recognize your power as a follower. The leader may have more authority, money, influence or intellect. But you develop power from your sense of purpose, skills, experience, relationships and ability to communicate.
- Give your leader negative feedback respectfully. Most leaders say they want it, Bleech says. Start by reflecting respect and valuing honesty. ("You know I respect your work and I hope you won't mind if I speak frankly.") Bleech recommends that you ask permission to give bad news. ("Something is bothering me. Would it be OK if we talk about it?") Say that your message might be difficult to hear but that you're standing by the leader. You also might link your feedback to outcomes the leader values. ("I think that what you're doing will affect our profits this quarter. May I explain?")
- Regularly encourage your leader to involve new people in making decisions and setting direction. Prevent isolation. Model a participative style. When the leader makes a plan, say that you'll bring it up at the next staff meeting or collect feedback from another department.
- Challenge a leader's small abuses before they become bigger and more dangerous. And be persistent. "Challenging something once does not give us the right to lean back cynically and say, `Well, they never listen,"' Chaleff writes. We must accept moral and legal responsibility for the tacit or actual support we give to the abuse.