We often talk about leadership in this column, but this month I'm struck by followership. It's a concept sometimes maligned by preconceived notions of thoughtless hordes trailing behind a wicked chief who leads his disciples into unknowing despair. However, in our world of nursing leadership, followership is actually critical and positive. We couldn't lead or succeed without followers. And we follow, too, needing our own true North and sense of purpose. Do you have faithful followers?
Those who follow us may be formal direct reports, devotees from within or outside of our own organizations, or even social media “friends.” Our influence as leaders is wide. Think of who you admire and track: your boss(es), colleagues, mentors, and anyone else who inspires you. I've learned immensely from being a follower, haven't you? The stigma is unjust.
Leaders and followers who believe in, support, and motivate each other are part of a wonderful helix. We need each other to reach goals, push the envelope, and, in general, look good and do well. It can't be just about leadership; none of us works alone to accomplish goals.
We know what makes a good leader, but what makes a good follower? Is it unconditional loyalty? I don't think so. The best followers are loyal, but they also question, tell the truth, and speak up. This isn't to say that throwing barriers in the way of expectations is encouraged; rather, it means that mutual respect can certainly include healthy questioning to reach shared understanding—a basic foundation for the active process of moving forward, much preferred over passive, unenthusiastic conforming. As followers ourselves, we know that being actively involved in decision making and appropriately autonomous go a long way. Being a “yes man” is neither fulfilling nor enjoyable.
What does loyalty really mean? Of course, you desire and need team members who support you. But looking for advancement or new opportunities outside of your formal reporting relationship isn't disloyalty, it's professional growth. What isn't okay is undermining behaviors, which we all know can occur under the radar and are so destructive. And that goes for both sides of the aisle. Managing up (and down) is a much better skill to learn.
Being the leader doesn't give you the latitude to be mean or disrespectful to anyone, whether you're the charge nurse or the president. You'll damage your own efforts at being successful, and the interdependent leader-follower helix will be broken. Yes, weak followers are just as disadvantageous as weak leadership. Neither is more important. Remember, you're only as good as your team.
Let's forego the forgotten role of followers and remind ourselves that leaders and followers aren't opposites; it's the give-and-take that lets us all shine. Be a strong leader and a good follower: eager, honest, sharing responsibility, and delivering what's expected. Enjoy both roles!