Feature

The Art of Followership

Educators who can carry out the leader’s vision are vital to the system’s effectiveness by STEPHEN L. KLEINSMITH AND SHERI EVERTS-ROGERS


Leadership has become one of the most popular subjects of self-help books, articles and seminars. There’s even a newly published Leadership For Dummies guidebook on the market. All promise to provide the necessary skills, characteristics or prerequisite steps to become an effective leader.

Within a typical school district, many leadership roles exist. The teacher is the classroom leader, the principal is the building leader, the superintendent the district leader. Many educators perform multiple roles, leading in specific situations but following in others. The very best leaders--those who oversee some of the finest organizations in the world--fully appreciate the role of follower. Sam Rayburn, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once said, "You cannot be a leader and ask other people to follow you unless you know how to follow, too." Learning to be an effective follower will help one develop vital leadership traits.

"There are two ways of spreading light--to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it," novelist Edith Wharton once said. Followers reflect the light or mission of the leader. Knowing how to do so effectively is as important as being the candle that lights the way.

Through a conscious effort to properly research, reflect and respond, one can improve one’s followership ability in ways that develop personal leadership skills and greatly contribute toward organizational objectives. After all, the accomplishment of a meaningful mission is the focus of an entire organization.

Followership involves several strategies that can be duplicated and translated into everyday practice in an educational organization. What follows are the five vital aspects of an effective follower--the individual who mirrors the important message or mission of the leader.


Team Player
  • Concentrate on the common goal of the organization--that of being a team player.

    This is perhaps the most important and most obvious strategy for an effective follower. Be it site-based decision making, participatory decision making or strategic planning, followers need to possess the habit of teamwork in order to work effectively with other key and seemingly minor players. Good followers find themselves working with fellow team members to achieve alignment in their organization built on a common mission, values and goals.

    One of the most important qualities successful followers possess is to be able and willing to deal effectively with all types of people, focusing always on the common goal. Good team players are people-oriented and place a high value on people. Individual differences are valuable aspects of a team. Not everyone will contribute in the same way, but all team members should remain focused on the same goal. When a follower does this, she or he becomes an invaluable team player--one most leaders will seek out.

  • Demonstrate a strong work ethic.

    In the pursuit of a common goal, an individual who believes that any task is indeed in his or her job description does not worry about being asked to do something deemed insignificant or "not my problem." Instead, effective followers pitch in and help in whatever way is deemed appropriate. They continue to work toward the common good. They are willing to take whatever reasonable time is necessary to assist in developing solutions.

    Truly helpful followers not only work hard and smart; they work by the project rather than by the hour. Some of the best followers also find out that the harder they work the luckier they get, especially if they’re working with a supervisor who keeps an eye on things! After observing many problem-solving groups, researchers concluded that project- or task-oriented behavior is a primary habit of a successful follower.

    Now let’s look at the word responsibility--"response-ability"--the ability to choose one’s response. Followers with strong working habits recognize their responsibility. They do not blame circumstances or conditions for their behavior.

    Those followers striving to be their very best appear to be intrinsically motivated and often see their work as enjoyable and even fun. Successful followers are committed to personal performance and professional responsibility and are dedicated to the mission of the organization. Gaining this sense of purpose is essential to followers who seek job satisfaction and is needed to assure a healthy organization.

  • Adhere to high expectations of self and possess high positive self-regard.

    Effective followers realize their importance to an organization and its ability to accomplish a mission. Those who are successful in followership positions have a positive self-regard. Those individuals who possess it are good at their jobs. They enjoy their work. It satisfies their basic needs and motives. They feel they’ve made a good choice of careers. Successful followers also welcome a leader who possesses and projects a clear sense of priority and strong advocacy for high expectations.

    Making another person feel good in the unspectacular course of his or her daily comings and goings is the very essence of becoming a good follower. This kind of follower helps people believe in themselves and in the possibilities of the future.

    The truth is that job satisfaction and productivity come from people believing they have the power to make a difference. Since motivation is an attraction to a goal, followers have to make sure the goal or expectation is clearly understood. Hence, good listening skills are a key quality for all followers.

    One of the strategies for successful followership is to acknowledge that effective followers behave in ways that promote the best efforts of self and others. Followers also seek to be as enthusiastic about the success of others as they are about their own. Followers, like most educators, share a trade secret--when they expect high performances, they increase the likelihood of high performances.

    Leaders have expectations of their followers, and followers have expectations of their leaders. The expectations that both parties have of each other are an integral part of cooperative, successful work of a school district. Articulating those expectations and listening to the leader articulate them are also important aspects of effective followers.

  • Project optimism.

    Possessing a good attitude is an essential aspect of being an enthusiastic optimist. Occasionally, followers are given an assignment for which they question the purpose or with which they disagree. They should think in terms of do’s rather than don’ts. Focus on possibilities and solutions rather than on impossibilities and problems.

    Simply put, successful followers think innovatively and look for ways to make things happen rather than for reasons as to why something can’t or shouldn’t be done. If the opportunity for input has passed, they do not waste energy on pessimistic stone throwing. The difference between poor followers and effective ones are that poor followers believe they have limited options on tough assignments.

    On the other hand, effective followers are always developing options and see these tough assignments as an opportunity to set themselves apart from the crowd. Every assignment provides a valuable learning opportunity. It is important that all people in an organization are into outcomes, results and performances, not excuses. Effective followers ask, "How can we help?" not "Who can we blame?" Nothing will destroy a set of goals faster than having a non-committed group of followers behind them.

    Visionary leaders are key in setting goals, but it's the committed followers who achieve them.

  • Practice interpersonal intelligence.

    Effective followers also possess and practice characteristics associated with what Howard Gardner of Harvard calls "highly interpersonal intelligence." Many characteristics in this category call for the items already discussed with one major emphasis: listening.

    Lots of people talk about the importance of listening, but few people practice its importance. Those with high levels of interpersonal intelligence actually listen. They don't just wait for their turn to speak. Without clearly understanding where your leader hopes to take the organization, how will you ever be able to assist him or her? Thus, an excellent follower must realize the importance of good listening.

    In addition to listening well, effective followers also break the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Instead, effective followers treat others the way others would like to be treated. The ability to do so involves excellent listening skills, but also calls for paying attention to the body language of others.

    Effective followers with high levels of interpersonal intelligence are also able to laugh at themselves, at their current situation and at life. Taking oneself and one's mission in life too seriously can drain energy and enthusiasm. A positive sense of humor--one that does not ridicule others but finds humor in situations and life--allows effective followers to keep events in perspective.
  • This is perhaps the most important and most obvious strategy for an effective follower. Be it site-based decision making, participatory decision making or strategic planning, followers need to possess the habit of teamwork in order to work effectively with other key and seemingly minor players. Good followers find themselves working fellow team members to achieve alignment in their organization built on a common mission, values and goals.One of the most important qualities successful followers possess is to be able and willing to deal effectively with all types of people, focusing always on the common goal. Good team players are people-oriented and place a high value on people. Individual differences are valuable aspects of a team. Not everyone will contribute in the same way, but all team members should remain focused on the same goal. When a follower does this, she or he becomes an invaluable team player--one most leaders will seek out.In the pursuit of a common goal, an individual who believes that any task is indeed in his or her job description does not worry about being asked to do something deemed insignificant or "not my problem." Instead, effective followers pitch in and help in whatever way is deemed appropriate. They continue to work toward the common good. They are willing to take whatever reasonable time is necessary to assist in developing solutions.Truly helpful followers not only work hard and smart; they work by the project rather than by the hour. Some of the best followers also find out that the harder they work the luckier they get, especially if they’re working with a supervisor who keeps an eye on things! After observing many problem-solving groups, researchers concluded that project- or task-oriented behavior is a primary habit of a successful follower.Now let’s look at the word responsibility--"response-ability"--the ability to choose one’s response. Followers with strong working habits recognize their responsibility. They do not blame circumstances or conditions for their behavior.Those followers striving to be their very best appear to be intrinsically motivated and often see their work as enjoyable and even fun. Successful followers are committed to personal performance and professional responsibility and are dedicated to the mission of the organization. Gaining this sense of purpose is essential to followers who seek job satisfaction and is needed to assure a healthy organization.Effective followers realize their importance to an organization and its ability to accomplish a mission. Those who are successful in followership positions have a positive self-regard. Those individuals who possess it are good at their jobs. They enjoy their work. It satisfies their basic needs and motives. They feel they’ve made a good choice of careers. Successful followers also welcome a leader who possesses and projects a clear sense of priority and strong advocacy for high expectations.Making another person feel good in the unspectacular course of his or her daily comings and goings is the very essence of becoming a good follower. This kind of follower helps people believe in themselves and in the possibilities of the future.The truth is that job satisfaction and productivity come from people believing they have the power to make a difference. Since motivation is an attraction to a goal, followers have to make sure the goal or expectation is clearly understood. Hence, good listening skills are a key quality for all followers.One of the strategies for successful followership is to acknowledge that effective followers behave in ways that promote the best efforts of self and others. Followers also seek to be as enthusiastic about the success of others as they are about their own. Followers, like most educators, share a trade secret--when they expect high performances, they increase the likelihood of high performances.Leaders have expectations of their followers, and followers have expectations of their leaders. The expectations that both parties have of each other are an integral part of cooperative, successful work of a school district. Articulating those expectations and listening to the leader articulate them are also important aspects of effective followers.Possessing a good attitude is an essential aspect of being an enthusiastic optimist. Occasionally, followers are given an assignment for which they question the purpose or with which they disagree. They should think in terms of do’s rather than don’ts. Focus on possibilities and solutions rather than on impossibilities and problems.Simply put, successful followers think innovatively and look for ways to make things happen rather than for reasons as to why something can’t or shouldn’t be done. If the opportunity for input has passed, they do not waste energy on pessimistic stone throwing. The difference between poor followers and effective ones are that poor followers believe they have limited options on tough assignments.On the other hand, effective followers are always developing options and see these tough assignments as an opportunity to set themselves apart from the crowd. Every assignment provides a valuable learning opportunity. It is important that all people in an organization are into outcomes, results and performances, not excuses. Effective followers ask, "How can we help?" not "Who can we blame?" Nothing will destroy a set of goals faster than having a non-committed group of followers behind them.Visionary leaders are key in setting goals, but it's the committed followers who achieve them.Effective followers also possess and practice characteristics associated with what Howard Gardner of Harvard calls "highly interpersonal intelligence." Many characteristics in this category call for the items already discussed with one major emphasis: listening.Lots of people talk about the importance of listening, but few people practice its importance. Those with high levels of interpersonal intelligence actually listen. They don't just wait for their turn to speak. Without clearly understanding where your leader hopes to take the organization, how will you ever be able to assist him or her? Thus, an excellent follower must realize the importance of good listening.In addition to listening well, effective followers also break the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Instead, effective followers treat others the way others would like to be treated. The ability to do so involves excellent listening skills, but also calls for paying attention to the body language of others.Effective followers with high levels of interpersonal intelligence are also able to laugh at themselves, at their current situation and at life. Taking oneself and one's mission in life too seriously can drain energy and enthusiasm. A positive sense of humor--one that does not ridicule others but finds humor in situations and life--allows effective followers to keep events in perspective.

    Effective Following
    The relationship an effective follower has with the leader is also an important aspect of interpersonal intelligence.

    These suggestions are those adhered to by the effective follower with high interpersonal intelligence:

  • Seldom burden your leader with your professional disappointments. You are to bring relief to his or her leadership responsibilities; don't add luggage for him or her to carry.

  • When the leader is getting into a pinch, sometimes taking ownership of the matter will allow the leader the reflection time needed to redirect the discussion. Be sensitive to the leader's reactions when you do this.

  • Be pro-active with your thoughts. Look for an alternative solution when the situation for the leader takes an unexpected and unwelcome turn. With time often being a commodity in short supply in a crisis, your pro-active way of looking ahead may make the winning difference.

  • If there is a need (as made obvious by the leader) to provide support to a person or program in the organization, but without your understanding why, give the support first, then ask why. Publicly second guessing the boss gives a negative impression to those around him or her. The boss doesn't need good followers when things are easy. The leader needs good followers when the going gets tough. If you feel the decision was a poor one, then work with the leader behind the scenes to map out a better way.

  • Find a way to do great work without threatening the top leadership position. The best way to do this may be to publicly praise him or her for guidance and direction. Refer to the leader as someone who is continually helping you grow professionally, which is usually the case anyway, at least with good followers!

    Do these things only if they deserve to be done or are true. Otherwise your behavior appears to be self-serving backslapping. Sometimes loyalty may mean keeping one's mouth closed.

  • High Importance
    If one believes strongly enough in the mission of one's organization, then being a good follower should be considered a vital aspect of ensuring its success. Being an effective follower is as important as being an effective leader and develops one's leadership potential. With increased emphasis and understanding placed on following, one begins to see the value of common contributions as absolutely critical.

    Stephen Kleinsmith is superintendent of the Nixa R-II School District, 205 North St., Nixa, MO 65714. E-mail: skleinsmith@mail.nixa.k12.mo.us. Sheri Everts-Rogers is an assistant professor of education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a board member of the Millard Public Schools in Omaha, Neb.