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Laurent M. Lapierre is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
Laurent M. Lapierre is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Why leaders need true followers Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

If given a choice, most people would prefer to be a “leader” than a “follower,” especially the ambitious among us. The term “follower” has often been saddled with negative connotations; images of sheep, “yes people,” or mindless subservience habitually come to mind. But this is a traditional and narrow-minded view of followers. The reality is that organizations can’t have true leaders without followers.

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The expression “it takes two to tango” is an apt description of leadership. Some managers may consider themselves leaders, but if they lack staff who truly want to follow them, they probably aren’t worthy of the term. As a manager, have you ever had team members who showed little, if any, support or enthusiasm for your ideas? Subordinates who gave you the impression that they complied with your decisions more out of duty than eagerness? Or who blatantly thwarted your leadership efforts by regularly resisting your requests or opposing your ideas? I have news for you: these employees were not your followers. But I’m sympathetic. You may have experienced considerable frustration, anger, depression, and a drop in confidence in your ability to lead. Having “non-followers” on their staff can literally destroy the courage and drive that managers need to be bold, challenging, and inspiring leaders. While some managers have unshakable confidence and drive to lead, they are a rare breed. Most need to feel supported – most need followers.

People display followership when they express, through their words or actions, respect and support for a person they view as their leader, and openness to be influenced by him or her in that capacity. This implies that followership involves at least some degree of deference to the leader, although the degree of deference shown can vary. By providing followership, employees elevate their manager to the status of leader, who then has the latitude and confidence to lead them.

There are at least two broad ways of being a follower: being passive and being proactive. The passive follower is highly deferential and focuses on carrying out the leader’s requests in the most expedient and effective manner possible. This style is akin to the traditional and one-sided view of followers described earlier. The proactive follower is concerned less with strict obedience than with helping the leader make the best possible decisions for the group. This is someone who feels comfortable showing less deference by challenging the leader’s assumptions or ideas, explaining the basis for the challenge, and offering alternatives for the leader to consider.

Some commentators may argue that one type of followership is clearly better than the other. I argue that they both have their place, depending on the situation. For instance, the proactive style is probably most useful and appreciated by the leader when there is sufficient time to debate a particular course of action. However, if there’s a call for an urgent leadership decision, passive followership would probably be a better option.

In contrast, proactive followership would be a good choice for someone who has clear expertise to offer that would help inform the leader’s decision-making. Challenging the leader’s thinking without salient expertise may actually make it more difficult for the leader to make the best decision for the group. The proactive approach is also ill-advised when the leader’s trust is in doubt. Indeed, challenging a leader’s ideas when we have yet to earn his or her trust may cause more harm (such as doubt, apprehension, and insult) than good.

The vast majority of scholarly and mainstream publications on effective management call for better leadership. Similarly, most business schools and many management consulting firms offer the promise of molding people into leaders. What about showing employees how to provide effective followership? To date, the followership side of the leadership equation has been all but ignored. It’s time to recognize and address this gap to ensure that organizations support the leadership they so desperately need.

Laurent M. Lapierre is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management (@Telfer_uOttawa), and is co-editor of the recently published book Followership: What is it and why do people follow? (Emerald Group Publishing).

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