Beyond Leadership By Frank Ofili

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It is widely understood and accepted that there is a link between leadership, management and organizational and/or corporate performance. Improving leadership improves management and raises the probabilities of better performance. That boards often change leaders when enterprises are sliding downwards confirms the importance placed on leadership.

Conversely, in the political arena, a strong link exists between leadership, followership, national performance and the quality of life of the citizenry. In advanced democracies when the quality of life of the ordinary man begins to deteriorate, the people, via the ballot box, take steps to change the political leadership at the next available opportunity.

The flip side of leadership is followership.  It stands to reason that if leadership is important to performance, followership must have something to do with it too.  But curiously, followership gets only a small fraction of the attention that leadership does. 

Followership is the ability to not only understand the need to follow a certain direction, but also to willingly and enthusiastically take that direction; to get in line behind a program, a project or a policy and to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.  How well the followers follow is probably just as important to success as how well the leaders lead.

But it seems no one likes to be called a good follower. For most people, being a follower is derogatory, condescending and uncharitable. In local parlance, the concept of a “follow-follow” is undignifying as it denotes one lacking in initiative and independence of opinion. There is something of a stigma to followership skills.  Pity because the practical reality is that one does not reach progressively more responsible leadership positions without demonstrating an ability to follow and function effectively in a group.  The stack reality however is that everyone is both a leader and a follower (at least a potential one) depending on the circumstance.

Followership may take the back seat to leadership but it matters a lot. Quite simply, where followership is a failure, not much gets done. Or what does get done is not what was supposed to be done. This could prove to be very costly in the political arena. Followership problems in the political arena manifest themselves in apathy on the side of people, impunity on the side of ruling elite, unaccountable, irresponsible, and unresponsive leadership, distraction from goals, unsatisfied and unhappy citizenry, lost opportunities, weak institutions and other kindred maladies. At the extreme, weak leadership and weak followership are two sides of the same coin and the consequence is always the same – systemic confusion and poor performance.

But what are the essential qualities of good followership? 

1.      Judgment.  Followers must take direction but they have an underlying obligation to the organization, group or cause to do so only when the direction is ethical and proper.  The key is having the judgment to know the difference between a directive that your leader gives on how to proceed that you do not agree with and a directive that is truly wrong.

No one disputes the fact that good judgment is critical to being a good leader.  It is just as important in the follower. Show enough good judgment as a follower and you usually end up being a great leader.  Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.

2.      Work Ethic.  Good followers are good workers.  They are diligent, motivated, committed, pay attention to detail and make the effort.  Leaders have a responsibility to create an environment that permits these qualities but regardless, it is the responsibility of the follower to be a good worker.  There is no such thing as a bad worker who is a good follower.

3.      Competence.  Followers cannot follow properly unless competent at the task that is directed by the leader.  It is the obligation of the leader to ensure that followers are competent.  Sometimes things go wrong because the follower is not competent at the task at hand.  When this happens, leaders should blame themselves, not the follower.  A sign of poor leadership is blaming followers for not having skills they do not have.

4.      Honesty.  The followers owe the leader an honest and forthright assessment of what the leader is trying to achieve and how.  This is especially the case when the followers feel the leader’s agenda is seriously flawed.  Respect and politeness are important but, it is not acceptable for followers to sit on their hands while an inept leader crashes the bus. Good leaders are grateful for constructive feedback from their team, unlike bad leaders who do not welcome feedback. This is the bane of Nigerian and other Third World countries leadership challenge.  

5.      Courage.  Winston Churchill defined courage as “the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend”. Followers need to be honest with those who lead them.  They also need the courage to be honest.  It takes real courage to confront a leader about irregularities in the leader’s agenda.  From time to time, it takes real courage to be a good follower.

6.      Discretion.  Followers owe their leaders discretion.  Talking about work, team, group or sensitive personal matters inappropriately is at best unhelpful and more likely harmful.  Discretion just means keeping your mouth shut.  You cannot be a good follower and be indiscreet.  Everybody who finds himself in the midst of others has a duty of care; indiscretion is not care, it is careless.

7.      Loyalty.  Good followers have an obligation to be loyal to their cause or the common good.  Loyalty to the common goal is particularly important when there are problems, interpersonal or otherwise, with a particular leader.  Followers who are not loyal are inevitably a source of difficulty.  They create problems between team members; they compromise the achievement of goals; they waste everybody’s time; they are a menace.   Loyalty is a strong allegiance and commitment to what an organization, a group or a team is trying to achieve.  The obligation of the good follower is to the common good, not a given leader at a given point in time. It is bad leaders who expect personal loyalty to the detriment of the common good.

8.      Team Spirit.  Good followers have their egos under control.  They are team players in the fullest sense of the concept.  They have good interpersonal skills.  Success for good followers relates to performance and goal achievement not personal recognition and self-promotion. 

Followership will always be in the shadow of leadership, but there are no leaders without followers. Success with weak followers will always be short-lived, and ultimately prove elusive.  It is true that an organization or group is only as good as its leaders, but it is also only as good as its followers. 

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