One evening some years ago, I was dutifully helping my daughter fill out her scholarship applications for college. I still remember hos something suddenly struck me about the questions on the application forms. Many of them focused on the student’s leadership activities. For example, “What is your level of involvement in school and social organizations? Are you an officer in these organizations?” The questions were obviously slanted toward “leadership”.
Now I teach “leadership” but I also think “following” has gotten a bad rap. So does Douglas Smith (an author and consultant on team performance) who writes:
“Few children aspire to grow up to become followers. Following is not included in selection criteria for colleges, professional schools, scholarships, or awards. In fact, at school, in books and newspapers, in the movies, and on television, following is often condemned as a mindless denial of basic humanity. We are treated to a steady diet of groupies, cult members, and brainwashed masses and are bluntly warned against the horror and destitution of following.”
I think it’s time to build a case for followership. After all, following is a critical component of being an effective leader. Effective leaders provide their followers with opportunities to develop their own leadership skills. In order to do this, leaders must learn both when and how to exercise the following part of leading and the leading part of following.
In an effort to help us become better leaders I’ll provide a few suggestions on becoming better followers in this and my next SFS post. Here’s my first suggestion:
Ask questions rather than issue directives or give answers.
Let’s face it, as leaders of our businesses most of us are accustomed to answering people’s questions and helping them solve problems. We enjoy being in control of things. So, asking someone what they think, or soliciting their opinion on how they’d solve a particular problem forces us outside our normal role of chief problem solver and question answerer in our companies. It also means giving up a certain amount of control that we’ve become very comfortable having.
But remember that sometimes answering people’s questions perpetuates the problem rather than solving it. People can become dependent on you solving their problems for them. As a result, their ability to make decisions or solve problems on their own can become weak from lack of use.
Frequently, the best response you can give to a question is a well crafted question in return. This forces the questioner to think things through on their own and discover their own answers. This “questioning response” may also help them discover leadership skills they weren’t aware they had!