In praise of great followers

We’re always reading about how to be a great leader. But let’s not forget that a leader’s success rests in the hands of their followers. I find it frustrating to coach leaders who are working harder than is necessary to compensate for the drag of their team. Great leaders are nothing without great followers – and every leader is following someone. So this month let’s pay attention to the skills of being a great follower, since we are in some ways both a leader and a follower.

 1.      Persistently ask questions and check your understanding. Time and money is lost, and unrecoverable, when followers head in the wrong direction because they assume they know what their leader wants. Vague leaders think they are communicating clearly, because they forget that everyone doesn’t know what they know.  The busy pace of the work place forces may force condensed versions of expectations. Avoid error and embarrassment by always making sure you’re on the same page. Resist the urge to  nod and say “got it” in order to appear quick-thinking and knowledgeable. Ask questions, and continue to ask questions, any time you are unsure. When you feel you are sure, double check. Say, “Is this what you mean me to pursue?”  Corner your busy boss once in a while to ask, “Am I am approaching this task the way you’d like me to?” 2.      Push back against unrealistic expectations. Show courage in accepting assignments. Sometimes your leader will get pushed or tricked into accepting work for the team that is unreasonable – even impossible. Depending on how far removed from the day-to-day your boss is, he or she may not even realize that asking you to write one report will require a week of work. If you are asked to produce something without the right tools or information, say so. If your leader has committed you to deliver something in an impossible deadline, say so right away. Pay attention to  your early discomfort and negotiate for more support or more time. It feels difficult to say “I can’t do it” or “I’m not sure how I can do that in time” –  but it always works out better than late excuses for why you didn’t deliver. Be respectful in your push-back. There is no need to embarrass your leader in a meeting or make them look foolish to others. Sit down privately and admit that you have strong reservations about being able to deliver what they have asked for.  3.      Provide early warning signals. A great follower is a valuable source of information. You are going to hear and see things that your leader will not. Share information that you think is important – not just facts, but your impressions and your opinions also. Be clear which is which. Maintain the integrity of your relationships and don’t share confidential information. Instead, encourage team mates to tell the boss what they tell you. If you hear gossip, pass it up the pipeline so your leader can set the record straight.  4.      Don’t take offense easily. It is likely you will not get all the information you want, all the time. Depending on the politics of a situation,  your leader will choose what to share and what not to. Sometimes it’s not their choice – their confidentiality is mandated or legislated. Be understanding and gracious when you hear, “I can’t tell you.” or “I don’t want to discuss this with the team.” Some leaders worry about overwhelming their busy team with useless data, so they share less information. If you’d like more, just tell your leader that you will be accountable for sorting through it all without losing productive time.  5.      Give feedback that will make your leader better. Most leaders want to be more effective and also well-liked. They may not ask for personal feedback from you because they realize the power imbalance makes it awkward for you to be honest about your dissatisfaction. A leader may not want you to think they are fishing for compliments. Or, let’s face it, few of us really want criticism. Take the initiative to give suggestions on how they can help you to be more effective and more highly motivated. Again, use  your discretion and share it privately. Perhaps your new leaders is doing something that was very effective in their previous company, but goes against the culture here. Do them a favour and share your perspective.  6.  Say thanks. Most recognition programs focus on thanking your subordinates or peers. Everyone is afraid to look like they are seeking favour through flattery, so few say thanks to the boss. It’s true it can be lonely at the top of a hierarchy. Take a moment to thank your leader for their time, energy, commitment and hard work. You don’t need to do it often if you do it sincerely.

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