How Being An Effective Follower Can Make You A Better Leader
Last month I walked into my Fraternity’s chapter meeting, and for the first time in two years I sat in the back row. Not in the front row with the executive board, but in the back row next to a few of my friends. After serving as the Vice President of Academics for two consecutive years I was taking on a different role in the chapter – that of a general chapter member; that of a follower. Serving as a leader in the chapter for two years was an incredible experience and taught me countless lessons about leadership, but what I’ve come to find is that there are just as many leadership lessons to be learned from being a dedicated follower. Stepping down from my formal position of leadership helped me realize many of these lessons, and becoming an effective follower has made me an even better leader.
Go To The Balcony
One of the first lessons I learned pretty much immediately during that first chapter meeting in the back row was the importance of “going to the balcony”. This is a concept developed by Heifetz and Linsky that we use often at Leadership Inspirations. In fact, this very blog was named after the concept. Essentially, going to the balcony means taking a step back from what you’re doing and looking at it from a broader, more removed perspective. For me, this meant looking at the operation of the chapter and the meeting without being involved in running it. This external perspective allowed me to see a lot of things that I was previously blind to. I noticed problems that I didn’t even know existed when I was too busy trying to lead the chapter. Going to the balcony allowed me observe from a new perspective than I was used to and gain insights about what I could do differently next time I was given an opportunity to lead my fraternity or a similar group. Leaders of any group can use this lesson to make them more effective. If we periodically take time to go to the balcony and look at the big picture instead of just our own small part in it, we can identify areas of improvement that can help our group to grow.
Get a True Read on the Group
Another important lesson I learned was how to get a true read on the group. Although this was the first time I was in the role of a follower in the fraternity, there were others who had always been in that role, and what I was experiencing as new was what they were used to as the norm. By joining the group, I noticed which members were engaged in the meeting and which were checked out. I could see which parts of the meeting excited the members and which parts confused them or were irrelevant. While these subtle nuances were easily observed from my position in the group, they could be easily missed by those at the front of the room. It’s important for leaders to have a good read on their audience so they can know when they’re starting to lose people and need to change tactics, or when the pace is too fast or too slow. Effective leaders are adaptable and respond to their followers, but you can’t do that if you don’t understand their perspectives.
Build Mutual Trust and Respect
I found that it was easy for me to follow and be a cooperative and high functioning member of the group because I trusted and respected those who were leading the group. This did not come automatically. It was built over time by watching the executive board transition into their roles through meetings, retreats, and conferences. I trusted that they were competent in their positions and could fulfill their job responsibilities, and I respected their authority as elected leaders and the thoughtfulness of their actions. If I had lacked either trust or support with the executive board, I probably would not have followed as willingly or been as cooperative a member of the group. It is important for leaders to build trust and respect with those who they expect to follow them. Additionally, both trust and respect are two-way streets, so leaders must also give trust and respect to their followers to allow them to thrive in their role. Barbara Kellerman says that “followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.” Great leaders understand the important role that followers play, and thus understand why trusting and respecting them is so vital to their success.
Allow New Ideas to Arise
A huge benefit of sharing leadership is allowing new ideas to arise. I’d like to think that during my two years as the Vice President of Academics I was fairly innovative in introducing new ideas periodically, but when my successor took over the position he brought with him so many creative ideas that I never would have thought of. Even when a leader has great ideas, it’s always beneficial to encourage new and creative contributions from others. Leaders can take advantage of this lesson by sharing their leadership democratically and allowing all members of the group to voice their ideas and opinions. Furthermore, they can let other members of the group take charge of certain projects to share the leadership. The leader of a group doesn’t always have to be the one taking charge of every project. In fact, it’s probably best for the prosperity of the group if they don’t!
Be a Leader Among Followers
The best followers are leaders among their peers. Although I did not have a formal leadership position in the fraternity any longer, I was still able to embody characteristics of a leader and be a positive influence among the followers in the group. I was a leader in the sense that I set an example of how to be a good follower. Leadership is not always a position, it’s more often a way of being, so even followers can be great leaders. As Lao-Tsu once said, “to lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’” Anybody can rise up among a group of followers and act in a way that will develop or sharpen their leadership skills.
Work for Results, Not Credit
One of the modern models of leadership theory, servant leadership, states that great leaders work to achieve a result rather than to receive credit. The model is based on the idea that great leaders seek first to serve others and are considered leaders as a result, and that those who seek to be leaders for the title or credit are not actually good leaders. Leading from among a group of followers works well with this model because the leader is not motivated by the credit of a title or position. As a member of my fraternity without a formal position, I sought to be a leader among my peers and be a high functioning and participating member of the group to help the fraternity move forward. Regardless of whether or not an individual has a leadership title or position or whether or not they will receive credit for their leadership, their primary objective should be achieving a result – like their group’s goals or visions. By serving the needs of the group, they will be effective as a great leader in practice and not just by name.
Being a follower in my fraternity for the past few weeks has taught me that leadership really is accessible to anyone and that any person who seeks to develop their leadership skills and abilities can do so. You don’t need to wait to be placed in a formal position to become a leader. Furthermore, those who do have leadership positions or titles can use their experience as a follower to help them become even better leaders. Leadership is a journey, not a destination, and being an effective follower can always help you progress on your journey. I have learned that the end of my two years on my fraternity’s executive board did not mark the end of my journey of leadership development, but rather marked a milestone along the path and the opportunity to discover new lessons to help me continue to develop, both as a follower and as a leader.
The best leaders can lead AND follow effectively. No matter what your leadership position, make it a priority to step out of that space and into the role of your peers or group. Let someone else run a meeting while you sit and listen, ask for honest feedback from those around you, create space and time for your followers to be creative and innovative, or really get to know and bond with your team. Whatever stepping out of your leadership position looks like to you, be intentional about what you hope to get out of the experience. And have fun! You never know what you will learn.
*Meet the Author*
Morgan has been working with Leadership Inspirations for two years. He is a student at Chapman University studying for a B.A. in Integrated Educational Studies and an M.A. in Leadership Development. When he’s not at school, you can find him at Disneyland, at the beach, or hanging out with friends around LA and OC.