Followership – it’s a word that can elicit strong reactions. I’ve heard disbelief: “is that actually a thing?”. Confusion: “but I thought you said leadership” even anger “I’m NOT a follower!”. While some are almost embarrassed to confess “I think I follow well…”
When my kids were young they went to Cirkidz every Saturday morning. They learned a whole lot of skills: juggling, tumbling, riding a unicycle. They also learned performance and, just as importantly, audience, skills. How to be confident in front of other people, accepting applause graciously, taking turns, enjoying others’ skills, sitting still. They learned to work together, to combine ideas to make something better, to give and receive instruction. They learned to be aware of what was going on around them, to see risks for themselves and others and to speak up: “falling!”. They literally learned to support each other.
Everyone had opportunities to perform, everyone was in the audience. Both performers and audience were active participants.
This is like leading and following in organisations, everyone can, and should, do both. There is never a time when everyone is leading; leadership needs followership or it isn’t leadership at all (just as an audience needs performers). Likewise, followership needs leadership. Followership is not merely doing what you’re told without thought or question. It is actively participating in a leadership relationship and process. Followership makes space for leadership and it steps into the spaces made by leaders. It is fluid, we move between leadership and followership in our work relationships.
Organisations need good followers and good leaders. Taking followership seriously challenges how we often think about workplace relationships and roles – that could be why reactions to it are so strong.