Effective Followers: 4 Qualities to Strive For

Robert E. Kelley, in his landmark article for Harvard Business Review, β€œIn Praise of Followers” (1988), describes the behaviors that lead to effective followership. Even though this was written over 20 years ago, the concepts are still relevant for anyone wanting to be more successful at their job.

I find that in the new flatter styles of leadership and management, people aren’t used to operating within a more democratic, participatory structure. Some of my coaching clients know how to lead and how to manage, but they’re not sure how exactly to be effective followers.

Kelley defines two dimensions that underlie effective followers:

  1. The degree to which a person exercises independent, critical thinking
  2. The degree of active or passive participation

According to Kelley, β€œIn an organization of effective followers, a leader tends to be more an overseer of change and progress than a hero. As organizational structures flatten, the quality of those who follow will become more and more important.”

Here’s a graphic representation of that:

There are four essential qualities you need to develop if you want to become a really effective follower.

  1. Manage yourself well: The key to being effective as a follower is paradoxically the ability to think for yourself. Followers see themselves as equals to the leader they follow.
  2. Commit to a higher purpose: You work towards the purpose of the organization, and to certain principles and values outside of yourself. If you see a misalignment with personal values, you may withdraw your support either by changing jobs or by changing leaders.
  3. Build your strengths: When you have high standards of performance you’re continually learning and updating your skills and abilities. You seek out extra work and responsibilities in order to stretch yourself.
  4. You take risks: You are credible, honest and have the courage to speak up. You give credit where due, but also admit mistakes. You’re insightful and candid and willing to take risks. You keep leaders and colleagues honest and informed.

In information-age organizations, hundreds of decentralized units process and act on input within the design and purpose of the organization. And, they must do so as rapidly as possible. This requires an entirely different relationship between leaders and followers.

What do you think about this? How do you see yourself as a follower?

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