The Followers Responsibilities

Often leadership is equated with the leader. Of course it is not possible to lead without a leader.  However, leaders lead followers and followers have special responsibilities if the leader is to achieve his or her potential. Great leaders usually are blessed with followers who have the courage and wisdom to advise them truthfully and courageously about opportunities and also pitfalls. Courageous followers hold the mirror up to the leader and will not say “you are the fairest of them all” when there are areas for improvement. They share their advice without fanfare and unconditionally. Their generosity is fueled by their passion to contribute to the mission and the people it serves.

Trusted followers are excellent listeners.  They are interested in the hopes, aspirations, and perspectives of others.  They are not only able to internalize the words but importantly the spirit and emotions that fuel the words.  One of the leaders that I am currently working with, David, shared a powerful story with me.  Evidently, he has a tendency to unconsciously look towards Pat, his strategy lead who typically sits at the same side of the room occupying the same chair during the leadership team meetings.  David is not certain why he exhibits this behavior. It is, as he put it, a habit. He seems to habitually fixate his gaze at the same location in the room. The unintentional effect of this behavior is that others on the leadership team have taken notice of this behavior and have concluded that Pat’s perspectives carry greater weight than those of the rest of the team. I asked David how he found out about this unintentional outcome. He said, “Sue told me”. It turns out that Sue, his marketing lead, has a keen sense for the social and human landscape of the organization. She noted the leader behavior in meetings and observed the non-verbal reaction of others to it. She took it on herself to check in with a few of the other team members to validate her assumptions. Other team members told her that indeed they felt slighted and not validated since it appeared that David continuously checked in with Pat after he spoke. Since Pat also happens to occupy the head of strategy position, they concluded that decisions were predetermined prior to the meeting and that the leadership meetings were no more than a formality to simply inform them.

I asked David if I could speak to Sue and he agreed. Sue told me that she believed that her success and that of the organization depended on David’s performance. She took it for granted that being on the lookout for landmines and challenges that could negatively impact David was part and parcel of her role as a leader of the organization. She further shared with me that she likes and admires David and finds him to be a genuine and committed leader in the service of the organization – the ultimate servant leader as she put it. She acknowledged that no leader can be perfect, and that David needs help from time to time from people he trusts to see his blind spots. I asked if she has been rewarded or formally recognized for her dedication and attention to David’s success. She said she had not nor did she expect or accept any form or formal reward or recognition for being a trusted advisor. As she put it, “We are all in the same boat, and a leak at one end of the boat means we will all drown”

Leaders are human and the good ones admit to their frailties and vulnerabilities. David’s strength as a leader is that he is open and welcomes the help that Sue provides. He has made it a new habit to make certain that he distributes his gaze equally amongst the leadership team and that he invites diversity of thought into all conversation while he listens at a high level to the person speaking. Leaders who distance themselves from their trusted followers or do not create an environment that encourages the followers to reach out to them and share perspectives and suggestions risk making important decisions in a vacuum and exposing their blind spots. Great leadership is about carrying a learning mindset informed through deep curiosity and deep listening.


Questions for on-line conversation:

  1. Have you had trusted followers? How did they contribute to your leadership effectiveness?
  2. Have you been a trusted follower? How did perform in this role? What did you do to help the leader?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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