Developing Followers Who Lead Themselves

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An old adage advises us not to put all our eggs in one basket. We’ve all applied this principle to matters such as our finances, our time or our relationships. The idiom is meant to help us ensure that we are not overly reliant on any one thing for our success. I believe that organizations need to apply this principle to their leaders.

Even though I am a leadership consultant and professor, I believe that we place too much emphasis on the leader. Consider the following statements:

  • Everything rises and falls on leadership.
  • Good leaders are born, not made.
  • A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way (John Maxwell).

We live in culture that is leader-centric. We have schools whose mission statements tell us they are crafting the leaders of tomorrow. We have parents telling their kids to be a leader and not a follower on their sports teams. We hire employee search firms to hire leaders for our organizations.

I don’t want to minimize the necessity of an effective leader. It is important! But it is only one of several vital roles in an organization. A company is composed is composed of many people, or to use the example above, many different eggs. To say that ‘everything rises and falls of leadership’ means we may be guilty of placing all our leadership eggs in one basket.

It also means that we may be fostering the wrong type of followers. An unintentional consequence of an overemphasis on leadership is that we relegate followers to a passive role, somewhat like sheep who are required to follow their shepherd. Instead, our goal should be to create an environment which nurtures followers who can lead themselves. We want followers whose daily choices are acts of leadership. Purpose

Q. So what do we need to do to move leadership beyond our leaders?

A. We need to adequately define the role of non-leaders. We need to legitimize the role of a follower!

Here are some ideas of things we can do in order to develop followers who lead themselves.

  1. Build your organization around a purpose and not a leader. The model proposed by Ira Chaleff (Figure 1) places purpose as the preeminent focus for organizations. When we do this, we create an environment where followers lead themselves because we establish role parity.
  2. Define effective followership. If we want followers who act as leaders and not as sheep, we must redefine followership. I use the term ‘active followership’ to define the work of a follower who leads.  Whatever term you choose, you must redefine a follower as someone who holds a critical and ambitious role in your organization.
  3. Reward effective followers. If effective followers make our organizations successful then we must reward them as effectively as we reward effective leaders. After all, a leader who has no one following his is simply taking a walk. Followers are the ones who enable leadership so we must reward those who effectively practice it.

Followers who lead themselves is a wonderful concept. I believe that effective organizations of tomorrow will be ones who learn to engage active followers. Doing so harnesses a power that an effective leader cannot harness alone. It also ensures that all your eggs are not in one basket.

“Followership is not a term of weakness, but the condition that permits leadership to exist and give it strength” Ira Chaleff.

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Dr. Jeff Suderman is a professor, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman



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