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The Paradox of Followership

We are responsible. Whether we lead or follow, we are responsible for our own actions and we share responsibility for the actions of those whom we can influence.

All important social accomplishments require complex group effort and, therefore, leadership and followership. Both are necessary in the pursuit of a common purpose. Some believe that influence in the leader-follower relationship is largely one-way. This is far from true. Followers have great capacity to influence the relationship.

Just as a leader is accountable for the actions and performance of followers, so followers are accountable for their leaders. We must support leaders and, when necessary, help them correct their actions, just as they must support us and help us correct our actions. This is partnership. Both sides must be proactive. If we have followers who are partners with leaders, we will not have leaders who are tyrants.

Leadership may be informal and distributed throughout an organization. But formal leadership, which has final accountability and authority, is usually vested in an elected or appointed or self-proclaimed leader or small group. At the extremes, the formal leaders of a group may be wise or arrogant, servants or parasites, visionaries or demagogues. More commonly, leaders are a rich blend of strengths and weaknesses, of qualities that add and subtract value, and there is the potential for either side of their personalities to grow while in office. The quality and courage of followers influence which of the leader’s characteristics will grow.

If we amplify our leaders’ strengths and modulate their weaknesses, we are the gem cutters of leadership, coaxing out its full brilliance. If we amplify our leaders’ weaknesses, we may stress existing fracture lines in their characters and these fracture lines may become fatal flaws. Followers who are closest to a leader carry pivotal responsibility; they markedly shape the tone and outcomes of a leader’s tenure.

Courageous followership is full of paradox:

A courageous follower has a clear internal vision of service while being attracted to a leader who articulates and embodies its external manifestation.

Courageous followers remain fully accountable for their actions while relinquishing some autonomy and conceding certain authority to a leader.

A central dichotomy of courageous followership is the need to energetically perform two opposite roles: implementer and challenger of the leader’s ideas.

There is inherent tension between the identity a follower derives from group membership and the individuation required to question and creatively challenge the group and its leadership.

Followers often benefit from the leader as mentor, learning crucial things, yet at the same time must be willing to teach the leader.

At times, courageous followers need to lead from behind, breathing life into their leader’s vision, or even vision into the leader’s life.

Senior followers often are important leaders in their own right and must integrate within themselves the perspectives of both leadership and followership.

The concept of a “courageous follower” appears to some to be an oxymoron but, if embraced, enables followers to join leaders fully as stewards of the group’s trust.