I write this article on the heels of a very active post about my plan to change the word follower in my blogs and other leadership related correspondence. After a few weeks of mulling things over I decided that education versus changing the word would be the best step.
The reason this was an issue is the word follower has a negative connotation. I remember when my parents would tell me to not be a follower. "If your friend jumped off a bridge would you?" Everything you read about self-development and business is about not being a follower, being a leader. I want to challenge some of that notion. The qualities of a good follower are the building blocks of a good leader. The aversion to being a follower sets a tone where people do not want to excel at following, and would rather jump that step on their path to leadership. What those people don't understand is that their ability to lead well is greatly dependent on their ability to follow well; your time as a follower is where you will develop your leadership attributes.
Not every follower will be a leader. As I've stated before, the skills that made you the best xyz (tradesperson, salesperson, administrator, etc.) are not necessarily the skills that will make you a strong leader. However, exercising good followership (not a real word, I know) will build the foundation to your leadership development. A good follower is a leader in development. So what is good followership? Good followership is when a follower demonstrates certain traits as a team member that are directly translatable to good leadership. Here are 3:
1) Team First Mentality - As a team member, putting your team before yourself will develop your ability to self-sacrifice as a leader. As a leader you need to focus on the mission and take care of your people before you seek comfort for yourself. How does a good follower develop this? Pull your own weight, even if you don't feel like it - you need to be a driving force of the team, not a drag. Encourage and praise your team members - ensure they get their credit. Help fellow team members that need it - build those coaching muscles and sacrifice time to see others succeed. As a leader, you will be required to sacrifice personally to get the job done and develop your team - be proud, not everyone gets that privilege.
2) Take Initiative - As a member of the team, take the initiative to solve problems that are in your sphere of operation. As a leader, initiative is a cornerstone, as it will be up to you to keep pushing the marker forward, solve problems and look for ways to grow - all without being asked to. Develop this skill before you need it. When taking the initiative as a team member, make sure you communicate it to your leader, and those left and right of you, before you do anything. This way everyone knows what is coming and they can communicate with you if there is an issue. Use your problem solving skills and risk management skills to come up with effective solutions, then use your gumption to initiate it. One of the tasks that will take up most of your time as a leader is solving problems and pushing things forward, so get comfortable with it.
3) Develop Moral Courage - This is hard to exercise as a leader, and even harder to develop as a team member. It’s far too easy to give into peer pressure rather than do what's right. Whether it's sticking up for the unpopular, but right, decision, not cutting corners, admitting a mistake - these are all necessary but difficult to do. As a leader, it is expected to lead by example, and one of those examples is the setting on your moral compass by which you and your team will operate. The ethical and moral choices you make as a leader will resonate into the very fiber of your team and will forge its culture. As a team member, you can set the example for your peers. This may be harder as the social pressure is heavier, however, if you can do it amongst your peers, you will crush it as a leader.
A good follower exercising good followership will develop most if not all the necessary attributes and qualities of a leader, before they even get to a position of leadership. Further, being a good follower will help you solidify your credibility as a leader. What I mean is, you can set your self up for success in your team before your have to stand in front of it.
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The more and more I research leadership training and development, the more I find that the majority of training is geared towards those already in mid to high level management positions. Further, those at the team level aren't normally considered for this training. Nor do they consider it themselves. This doesn't sit well with me. Aren't we supposed to train before we get in the game? For training to be effective, you need to do it at the beginning and develop the right skills throughout. A two hour leadership workshop is not going to make you a good leader; years of making mistakes, self awareness and learning will develop your leadership. But you need to know what skills and attributes to develop before you start.
Despite the CEO of a company having good intentions by wanting to develop a culture of excellence and a healthy work environment, if their front line leaders do not execute, the whole idea is nothing more than words on paper. Front line leaders are the ones who get things done. If they do not have strong leadership skills, the negative effects could be strategic in nature.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is trying to combat sexual harassment and abuse issues in its ranks, and it is driving this campaign from the top general all the way down to the newest soldier. However, for this to work it has to get the buy in from all levels of leadership, especially the tactical level, where the troops actually are. Once the plan takes hold there, it will succeed, because the CAF has outstanding tactical leaders. This level of confidence in tactical leadership should be in every organization, especially when the stakes are so high.
Every organization can have strong tactical leaders, and the CAF has demonstrated a tried and tested plan, train leadership at the very beginning and keep it in the forefront of everything the organization does. This way the development starts on day one, and doesn't stop.
Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to - Richard Branson
Strong leadership is the back bone of any organization. The more you can develop leadership in all levels of an organization, the stronger the spine.
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