Followership Is Just as Important as Leadership

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Kevin Jones October 1, 2019 I’ve been tasked with leadership for most of my career. People often ask me what it takes to be an effective leader, and I often answer that to become a good leader, you need to be a good follower first. Subscribing to this maxim is important for people at all levels of an organization. Even as a CEO, I must follow the leadership of my board of directors, which includes some of my most trusted advisors and investors.

Here are just a few of the important ways we can develop ourselves as followers, so that our leaders can help us reach our full potential.

Be Character-Driven

Being a leader or follower takes character, because having character is the foundation upon which we build trust with others. Being character-driven yields great credibility in friendships, marriage, and parent-child relationships, and it’s just as effective in professional life.

Anyone who reads my work knows that there are two character-defining values that I hold above all others:  respect and humility.  Those who respect others—not based on job titles or perception of power—but on personal merit, show that they are open to learning. When you place respect on others, you are, in fact, anointing them to share their views as equals. Respect shows honor, and you’ll get honor in return.

The other big character-driver for me, the yang to respect’s yin, is humility.  When you are humble, you are literally placing your own ego in submission to your desire to learn. In effect, it’s doubling down on the respect you place on those who merit that respect. You’re effectively saying to them, I can’t do this alone, and I know you have something valuable to contribute. When a true leader detects both respect and humility on your part, there is no limit to what you can achieve together.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

I work very hard to create cultures where my team and I can take risks in the service of our clients, stakeholders, and each other. When you’re all in it together, there should be room for everyone to take the risks necessary to raise their performance standards higher day after day. I often tell team members that you will not ever “ski the blacks” unless you are willing to fall.

To be a good follower and leader, it’s imperative that you take risks. No leader can afford to manage to the status quo, which is the enemy of growth. Rather than covering your behind, you need to put yourself forward, knowing that you’re going to fail sometimes. A true leader will recognize those who fail, learn from those failures, and achieve even bigger success along the way as the greatest assets of their organization.

Be Accountable

While it’s fine to take risks and make mistakes, it’s unacceptable to lack accountability. Accountability, like respect and humility, is a character-driver and trust-builder. When your leaders know you are accountable, they are more likely to give you plum assignments that will help you grow, because they trust you. Whenever I need to delegate leadership in an area, a person’s accountability is just as important as their performance. Just like a mutual fund disclaimer—past performance is not an indication of future returns—we know that counting on someone means that you’re able to trust them when the chips inevitably are down.

It’s also critical to helping your leadership assess where real problems lie in an organization or externally. If you’re willing to step up and own your mistakes, it’s that much easier—in this business world that often feels like it moves at the speed of light—for everyone to re-chart the course necessary to achieve the goal.   Being accountable is not only right from a moral perspective, but also from a practical point-of-view. Accountability increases efficiency. The fact of the matter is that any good business is going to make mistakes, and the higher the accountability in the organization, the more time we spend fixing problems and the less time wasted on figuring them out.  

Seek Mentorship

This world is bigger than all of us, so we need to know that we’re in it together, not just as teams, but with someone who has our back. At every level of my career—performer, manager, middle manager, executive, founder, and CEO—I’ve had at least one, if not several go-to mentors. 

Mentors can do many great things for you. They can validate your great ideas, shoot down your terrible concepts, or help you work through those that deserve more attention. They can help you trust your instincts or help you identify situations where you might need to gather more data versus making a gut move.

Perhaps most of all, mentors can help us by simply being good humans. Those of us who care about being the best we can be at home and at work can be our own worst critics. I can tell you genuinely that one of my favorite aspects of mentoring is helping someone I love to pick themselves up after a failure.  Giving that energy back to someone who works hard, is trustworthy, and is full of that humility and respect I covet is a real blessing to me.  

See a Bigger Picture than Your Own

When you decide to become a great follower, it’s also imperative that you’re able to see a bigger picture than the one that’s your routine perspective. We have to empathize with our leaders to know how they contextualize their decisions, so that we can have greater understanding and meet the needs of their organization.

There’s always a bigger picture. If you’re a sales performer, your manager may have full profit-and-loss responsibility that forces certain frameworks on their decisions, contrary to your own context that’s centered on revenue.  Even as wide and complicated of a perspective as I have in my CEO role, does my leadership at LLR, our major investor, have a bigger picture than Celero? Of course they do, and what we achieve needs to fit in the context of their entire investment portfolio.

It’s easier to see how to be a good follower when you don’t have any management or leadership responsibilities. Many of you reading these thoughts of mine, however, have those kinds of responsibilities. You must be extra diligent to not only build your leadership, but also strive to become a better follower every day. Here’s the best part—doing both adds up to being a successful professional, and more importantly, a better person.