Why You Should Learn to Be a Better Follower

1950s Laughing Boys Walking On Top Of Stone Wall Arms Out Balancing Playing Follow The Leader.
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis

No one wants to be labeled a follower. There’s a reason it’s the subject of a Mean Girls taunt and a ribald Kanye West lyric, why we’re supposed to see it as an insult when Liz Lemon is presented with a “followship” award by Jack Donaghy. Being labeled a follower is, in short, a signal that you’re doing something wrong — in our leader-obsessed culture, those in charge are lauded, while followers tend to fade into the background.

But the concept of followership — in particular, how crucial it is to the success of one’s career — is gaining ground. In their new book Leadership Is Half the Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership, and Collaboration, husband-and-wife team Marc and Samantha Hurwitz bring followership to the forefront and emphasize how important followers are in the workplace.

Far from being a passive role, the Hurwitzes argue, good followership is active, intentional, and can make leadership much more effective. In short, followers know their leaders, give them what they need to excel, and compensate for their weaknesses. Great leader-follower pairs make history: Steve Jobs and Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, or, to use a fictional example, Frank Underwood and Doug Stamper on House of Cards. In each case, input from the second name turned the first into an icon. Leaders and followers fill complementary roles — one can’t succeed without the other.

The Hurwitzes know firsthand how big a difference good followership skills make. About a decade ago, both occupied high-level corporate executive positions, but their careers had stagnated. Marc proposed the concept of followership — taking a leader’s style, needs, and weaknesses into account, and responding with them in mind. Both Marc and Sam became better followers as a result, and felt more satisfied and valued in their jobs.

In a recent interview with Science of Us, the duo discussed just how far being a good follower can take employees who embrace the role.

Why do you think followership has such a negative stigma attached to it?

Samantha: People think of followership as brown-nosing, being political, or just something you do until you become a leader. There’s a lot of myth about it. We call it “the F-word” because nobody feels comfortable uttering it. But the reality is that followership is a legitimate role, and followers shape important decisions as much as leaders do.

Are attitudes toward followership changing?

Samantha: They are changing, and changing quickly. In recent years, because of social media really, following is now an accepted notion. In fact, everybody knows it’s a healthy part of any reciprocal relationship. It’s not a lesser thing or something to be ashamed of. When we work with young people who’ve grown up with social media, they don’t have the same baggage around followership as we do.

Why are followership skills increasingly important in the workplace?

Samantha: In 1980, about 20 percent of work done in North American organizations was team-based, and that has shifted to about 80 percent in 2010. That’s largely because the work has become more complex. There’s very little routinized work today, so it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach for companies to remain competitive.

Marc: There’s also a high rate of interpersonal change. It’s not just one person working with the same person and doing the same thing for 10 years — you’re being asked to change your team all the time.

Samantha: People have to build and rebuild relationships in the workplace so rapidly today that there’s no time to let things happen organically. You need to apply a methodological approach if you want to do it well and do it swiftly, and that’s where followership comes in.

So how can someone become a better follower?

Samantha: One thing you can do is to take the initiative. In fact, err on the side of taking 100 percent of the initiative, because in your followership role, the more effort you put in, the more you’re going to get out of it, and the more quickly you’re going to establish a thinking-partner-style relationship with your leader. You should also apply the Platinum Rule, so instead of treating someone as you want to be treated, treat them as they want to be treated. Work hard to find out what they need, what their preferences are, what their strengths are, and even what their pet peeves and soft spots are, so that you can leverage your own strengths to best support them.

In your book, you state that people with good followership skills are more satisfied in their jobs. Why is that?

Samantha: Surprisingly, people feel more empowered after followership training because it’s an acknowledgement of a role they’re already doing, and it emphasizes that this role is equally important to and as valued as the leadership role. They also begin to see how much influence they have in their followership roles, and how critical they are to an organization’s outcome.

Marc: When you control your own destiny, you feel better about it.

What does a good leader-follower dynamic look like?

Marc: It has become the trope in Silicon Valley that every effective high-tech organization needs to have a top COO. You need that dynamic interplay between someone who’s the creative visionary in the CEO role and someone who gets things done in the COO role, which is more of a followership role. It’s a very key role, and a good COO needs strong leadership and followership skills to be effective.  

Why You Should Learn to Be a Better Follower