Do you have conversations at work about being a good “follower”? And if you do, what does being a good follower mean? That you take orders well? That you do what you’re told, even if it doesn’t make sense to you? Or is good “followership” seen as part of everyone's general responsibility for building a successful business?

The question has been on my mind as a result of a class I am taking as part of my graduate studies. We read an HBR article by Robert E. Kelley that began with an anecdote about a department head in a large bank undergoing a reorganization. He was slammed with tan unwieldy workload, so he delegated the responsibility for his own department’s reorganization to the workers. He gave them parameters, but made it clear that they would be responsible to each other for outcomes such as job descriptions, criteria for acceptable performance, planning for operations etc.

The employees did a bang up job in record time with almost no supervision from senior leaders, and bank officials were “amazed.” In the article, Kelley asserted that this group of employees “went where most departments could only have gone under the hands-on guidance of an effective leader.” I felt a little sad when I read that, because I’m not at all amazed that the employees came through. And I found it disheartening that Kelley would see that as exceptional when it could — and should — be the rule.

In my experience, the assumption that workers would be hopeless lost without constant "hands-on guidance" is common, and it’s a problem. Even the subtitle of Kelley's article  "Not all corporate success is due to leadership" damns the workers with faint praise. It speaks to the low expectations many leaders have of the capable, accountable people they have hired. What is the cost of that view to the organization?

What if we began seeing followership as a way to take accountability for the good of the whole? What if the true value of "followership" came from employees who understand the vision of the enterprise, have clarity around what is expected, have the skills they need to manage interdependencies and serve customers, and a willingness to be accountable for the whole? What if they were encouraged to continuously challenge the common wisdom and practices?

A book by our friend Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower (Berrett-Koehler), asserts “it is not realistic to erase all distinctions between leaders and followers.”  Chaleff alleges that "powerful socialization” continues to serve bureaucracies by teaching and reinforcing obedience rather than critical thinking and thoughtful action. He contends that both leaders and followers must center their actions on purpose and shared values. He outlines five dimensions of courageous followership:

  • Assume responsibility

  • Serve

  • Challenge

  • Participate in transformation

  • Take moral action

"Courageous followers remain fully accountable for their actions while relinquishing some autonomy and conceding certain authority to a leader," Chaleff writes. "A central dichotomy of courageous followership is the need to energetically perform two opposite roles: implementer and challenger of the leader’s ideas."

Developing "good followers" wouldn’t negate the need for leaders, but it would surely lessen their burdens.