By Ryan Somers, Senior Manager, Customer Central, Global Marketing, SAP
In Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang literally means shadow and light, and the concept is used to describe how polar opposites are interconnected. Yin and Yang are complementary forces, and just as dark cannot exist without light, leaders cannot exist without followers. However, there are many commonalities and only by improving understanding can we become truly cohesive (YING).
Since the dawn of man there have been leaders and there have been followers. Leaders set the tone, lit the path, led the way, and earned all the praise. Followers had less say, did the heavy lifting, made less money, and took all the heat. Opposites rarely attract and this broken system paralyzed any attempt for collaboration. Luckily, there is hope, and over the years we’ve started to effectively collaborate and transform Yin and Yang into YING.
So why is there such a negative connotation (except on Twitter) with the term “follower?” Why do we still generalize followers as weak, passive, and afraid of taking risks? Why do we continue blabbing the old saying to our kids: “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?” These comparisons focus solely on one type of follower. But just as there isn’t a single defining ingredient in all leaders, followership isn’t cookie-cutter either. In fact, there are many different types of followers and one of them, strikingly enough, shares similar traits with the successful leader.
- Passive Follower – This person neither acts quickly nor thinks too deeply. They often do only what they’re told. Physically inactive, most sit around and stare at the clock.
Example: Think Milton from Office Space.
- Conformist Follower – The “yes man.” This type often lacks their own ideas, blindly accept assignments, and jump off bridges. Conformist followers seek to minimize conflict with order givers, rarely speak their minds, and need constant supervision. Given the right circumstances, however, these followers can be beneficial. I’m sure General Eisenhower thought conformist troops were critical to successfully storming the beaches at Normandy.
Examples: Bumblebees, Boot Camp Trainees, Suicide Bombers, Kamikazes.
- Alienated Follower – Capable but unwilling. Typically pessimistic and cynical, the alienated follower thinks “self over team” and often criticizes leadership while playing devil’s advocate. Leaders need to carefully find a common ground to satisfy the needs of the alienated. If done correctly, this type can very easily be molded into an effective follower. Julian from Remember the Titans is a perfect example as he transforms throughout the movie (from alienated to effective) once his leader learns how to motivate him.
Popular alienated followers: Dwight Howard, Randy Moss, Allen Iverson.
- Effective Follower – Independent and self-sufficient, the effective follower is active in the organization and often contributes beyond the typical job requirements. This type of follower takes ownership in their work and isn’t afraid to take risks, confront conflict, or fail. Sometimes these self-leaders can also make the seemingly impossible possible – motivating employees that leadership cannot reach. This kind of follower can be a valuable connection between leadership and staff.
- Pragmatic Survivor – The “chameleon” of the group who combines qualities from all four extremes. The pragmatic survivor will minimize personal risk by adopting the best style of followership for the given situation. With the majority of followers fitting into this type, the pragmatic survivor can be misinterpreted and challenging to label.
Popular pragmatic survivors: Politicians and husbands with pregnant wives.
Followers Can Lead – Leaders Can Follow:
- Managers focus on work, leaders focus on people. By always putting your people first, you set the stage for success. And when they succeed, you’ll succeed. Give greater responsibility to your people; sometimes it’s best to sit back and let others run with things to show your confidence and enable people to grow. Take an altruistic approach and supply them with the tools they’ll need to develop not only into effective followers, but eventual successors and beyond.
- Effective followers need to step up and lead the leaders. This holds true especially with new leaders at the helm. Don’t be an “info silo.” Work to make your leader successful and you’ll succeed too.
As leaders: We need to be cognizant of the various followership styles that our subordinates possess. Are you getting through to your people? Do they respect you, or fear you – and which do you prefer? If you reported to someone with your style, how would you follow? By altering our style to accommodate individual differences, we can boost employee productivity to new heights by building self-esteem, motivation, and personal buy-in.
As followers: We need to look in the mirror and determine if we have an accurate view of ourselves as employees. You’d be surprised how often self-assessments and outside perceptions can differ. Would you like to lead someone like yourself? Walk the talk and be the change. If you struggle with your manager’s leadership style, the effective follower has the power to influence.
So what’s the common ground? If leaders can follow and followers can lead, how do we know when to be what without losing ourselves? The answer lies in communication. At SAP, I work with some of the brightest people I’ve ever met, people that have graduated from the top universities in the world – places that I couldn’t dream of attending. And while there are scores of mega-minds doing incredible things, brains don’t automatically equate to success.
An effective team cannot thrive without effective communication. Without open dialog, followers might not understand the mission; they can feel under-appreciated and resentful. More effective followers could become alienated or passive followers. To promote a healthy environment for teamwork and collaboration, leaders need to learn about their people beyond the job description, show greater compassion, and provide constructive insight.
The responsibility for effective communication lies within both the leader AND the follower. So speak up, ask questions, open your ears, take chances, and encourage others to do the same regardless of what hat you’re currently wearing. In fact, I’d recommend tossing the hat out altogether and go get yourself a good haircut instead.