Is There Greatness in Being a Follower?

Steve Almond contributed an intriguing article to the March 2016 issue of The Rotarian entitled, “Best in a Supporting Role: Who follows when everyone in the room is a leader?”

He introduced me to the word followership, and he discussed how an organization like Rotary can face challenges when members—who are leaders in their communities and businesses—are asked to be followers in their club projects.

Almond points out that a common misconception about being a good follower is that it requires simply passive obedience. That’s not so, folks who like to study such things will contend! A good follower has to be:
-committed to the mission of the group
-competent in their given role
-able to work independently
-able to maintain ethical standards.

I found myself agreeing with the premise that being a follower is hard for many in our culture because we value “exceptionalism.” Most of us strive for some form of “greatness.” In the corporate world, people often have the mindset that if you’re not the top dog, you’re a nobody.

But I was disappointed that the article neglected to address the intrinsic value of followership. The author wrote a lot about the idea that if you want to be a good leader, you have to learn to be a good follower first. As if being a good follower is merely a stepping stone to the greatness achieved by being a leader.

What about those individuals, millions probably, who for whatever reason(s) don’t aspire to be in a position of leadership?

I did a Google search and found this same premise in virtually every article that popped up about followership: only that it’s a prerequisite of quality leadership. But I’m sure there’s more to it than that!

Still determined to write a blog exploring this topic, I searched for images to accompany this article. And then I saw it. Migratory birds!

I searched and found an article by Ed Yong sponsored by National Geographic that confirmed what I thought I had learned a long time ago: migratory birds that fly in a V formation have no dedicated leader. The leader has the most tiring job—the followers have an easier flight because they save energy mooching off the airflow of the bird(s) in front of them.

So the members of the flock unceremoniously take turns being the leader.

Imagine a corporate culture more like a flock, or a Rotary club, where members take turns leading different functions based on their strengths. No one is good at everything. Maybe a truly great leader admits when he or she is not an expert in something, and defers to someone else on the team to take a turn providing guidance and insights.

And then that person has a chance to excel at what they do best—to show that they are not a nobody. Even though they’re not the “top dog.”

In his article, Almond shares his experience as a teacher. The best-case scenario, he argues, is when the teacher doesn’t feel like he or she needs to have all the answers, but is able to coax the brilliance out of each student.

I would go even further. I would say that in the very best-case scenario, every person in the room takes turns being the “teacher” by having opportunities to share their ideas and experiences. And everyone certainly has an opportunity to be a student. We all can learn from each other!

Almond concludes, “being a good follower boils down to acceptance. You have to be OK with the idea that you achieve simply by contributing.
“To offer your full devotion as a follower isn’t an act of acquiescence or resignation. On the contrary, it’s evidence of a healthy ego of a person bright enough not to need a constant spotlight.
“The question for all of us is whether we can find the grace required to be a follower in good faith—to accept that cooperation is not the enemy of ambition and that recognition never brings us enduring happiness unless it comes from within.”

I wholeheartedly agree that “cooperation is not the enemy of ambition.”

I also agree that the most important validation comes from within. But perhaps a “healthy ego” comes not simply from the graceful acceptance of supporting role, but understanding that true personal excellence comes from doing the very best we can do in whatever part we play.

Not only do we “achieve simply by contributing,” I believe we can achieve greatness in our own individual contributions. Being a good follower (or leader) is also being a good team player.

Even birds know that by working together, they can achieve their most important goal: to successfully cover thousands of miles and get to their desired destination without over-extending themselves.
“Best in a Supporting Role: Who follows when everyone in the room is a leader?” by Steve Almond, The Rotarian, March 2016

“Birds That Fly in a V Formation Use an Amazing Trick,” by Ed Yong,


Category : Blog &Health Posted on March 30, 2016

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