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Good Leaders are also Good Followers

I recently attended a large national conference and felt nearly every other word was “Leadership.”  And while we are all encouraged to lead, we are expected to be an empowering and confident leader as well.

Don't get me wrong, I love the study of leadership and agree leadership is an important skill for us to have. But I find it just as important, if not sometimes more important, for us to be confident and empowering followers. Yes, the concept of Followership does in fact exist and is studied as much these days as the concept of Leadership. It's a growing skillset we all need to develop and maintain, especially as grant professionals when we serve at many different levels.
If everyone took a leadership role, how does the work of an organization get done? It should be a COMPLIMENT to be known as an excellent follower. Without followership, leadership does not exist! As a follower, you reciprocate a person's leadership. What is the best way to think of yourself as an excellent follower? As a leader's biggest cheerleader and supporter. Leaders look to followers for ideas and guidance – a role to not be taken lightly.
Often followers get the bad rap of being “sheep”. But you can ensure you do not fall into this category by doing two things: be an active participant and provide independent, well thought out comments in discussion. 
The ideal follower knows when to provide critical thought, when to let others take the role in generating ideas, when they should be active, and when they can take a back seat.  To do this, know your strengths and volunteer in those areas where you can make the most difference. At times when you take a follower role to learn a new skill, be the more passive follower to get your feet wet.
To be the best follower you can be, here are a few ideas and skills to keep in mind:  
  1. Create an idea or make a decision, then run it past the leader – it shows initiative. It also keeps a leader from becoming a micromanager by showing you are active and getting the work done.
  2. If responsibility is offered, take it - take the risk and volunteer. Don't let a job description or pay grade keep you from stepping up. Your job or pay grade might just change later for the better.
  3. Do speak honestly and openly with your leader – but do so in private. Disagree with them, when it is necessary, so that the situation can be worked out. But also keep the conversation private so as to not undermine the rapport you have built with them.
  4. It's easy to criticize a decision a leader has made – but show your support. If something a leader has decided is unpopular but necessary, remember they rely on you for laying the ground work for support.
  5. If you see a problem, fix it - even if it's not “your problem.”  If it is something you aren't capable of fixing, bring it to the leader with any idea you have for a solution.
  6. Know how much time you have and any limitations – because if you recommend an idea, you are most likely the one to carry it out. Hang on to any great ideas for when you might have the time to take them on.
  7. Admit when you miscalculated or made a mistake – a leader can help you fix it and go to bat for you.
  8. Above all, keep ethics in mind – as a grant professional, stick to the GPA ethics statements, whether it be in reporting what someone else does or making sure your actions are ethical.
Now, if you are a leader, you are not off the hook in the followership discussion. Some things to remember as you serve in a leadership role:
  1. Always thank your followers – paid or volunteer. “Thank you” goes a long way.
  2. Recognize good work and great contributions – recognizing great followers and their work encourages them to continue.
  3. Ask for and use 360 feedback – followers can provide a perspective that you may not get from other colleagues. Ask for their opinion on an idea you have passed along or a decision you have made.
  4. And just like followers, admit when you made a mistake - if you admit when you are wrong, it makes it easier for followers to do the same. Easier said than done but remember the respect you gain on the other end.
If you're interested in reading more about Followership, there are some great resources out there. These are a few of my favorites:
I hope you all are inspired to think about your contributions as excellent followers as much as leaders.  Next time you examine your annual goals or your leadership goals, I encourage you to think about your followership skills and development as well.

Do you have followership stories to share? Please share in your comments below. 
Ericka Harney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations, GPA Approved Trainer, and an Organizational Leadership Doctoral Candidate at Eastern University.