Following the leader (Executive Series)

Most employers focus on leadership, but followership skills are important too

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements: 

Following the leader
Most employers focus on leadership, but followership skills are important too

By Liz Bernier

Imagine if we taught ballroom dancing the way we teach leadership in organizations: Take the leader into a room on his own and teach him to lead on his own while his partner effectively sits out in the hall — staring at the wall, twiddling her thumbs. 

“It sounds crazy. In ballroom dancing, we would never expect to get optimal results that way — but yet that’s what we do in organizations,” said Samantha Hurwitz, Toronto-based co-founder and chief encouragement officer of FliPskills, speaking at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

Most organizations have a very strong focus on leadership development. But there is no discussion of or support for developing the followership role — even though every single person in the organization is, at some time or another, a follower. 

“We all have a leadership role and a followership role, and yet all we ever talk about is leadership, all we ever acknowledge is leadership, all we ever develop is leadership,” said Samantha. 

“We’re not saying that leadership isn’t important — leadership is important. Leadership is a challenging job, but it’s not the only job you have. It’s half your job — it’s half the story. If you want more leadership, better leadership, better organizations, you need to bring focus to the other half of the story, and foster followership too.” 

The followership role needs to be acknowledged, recognized, given feedback and developed. 

“Unlike dancing, we don’t stay in one role all the time — we’re not a leader all the time or a follower all the time. Rather, we take on a leadership role or a followership role as the situation requires. The same person who’s a great leader one moment has to flip to being a great follower the next.”

Necessary condition for success
A University of Indiana survey by professor Augustine Agho of 300 C-suite executives found senior leaders almost unanimously understand the impacts followership has on work, said Marc Hurwitz, co-founder and chief insight officer of FliPskills.  

“One hundred per cent of senior executives, except for one out of the 300, thought that followership affects work output. Another 99 per cent thought followership improves work unit performance, and 96 per cent said that it’s more than doing what one is told, and that they disagree that everyone knows how to follow,” he said.

“(Agho) came to the conclusion that followership should be viewed as a necessary condition for an organization’s success.”
In fact, other studies have shown enormous, tangible impacts for organizations with strong followership, said Marc. 

“Imagine if you went to the CEO of an organization that you’re working with and said, ‘I can increase sales, quality of work, revenue per employee, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction — virtually every metric associated with the business from top line to bottom line and everything in between — by 17 to 43 per cent. But that’s exactly what MacKenzie and Podsakoff found in a series of studies they did,” he said.

So why have CEOs and senior leaders not done anything about it?

“The reason is, the ‘f’ word. And followership often is the f word of business. We think, for example, that followership is a less important role — but that’s nonsense. The roles are equal; we all have leadership and followership roles. Nothing gets done if we’re not doing our followership role properly,” said Marc. 

“It’s not less important, it’s equally important, and you can see from an organizational perspective that it’s equally important.”

There are a number of common misconceptions about followership that contribute to its negative connotations, said Marc. 
One is the misconception followership is something of a stepping stone and it exists to prepare you to lead. 

“These are distinct but complementary skills,” he said. “They’re different roles with different skills and different attributes. Sure, some of the things are shared between the two… so there is some overlap, but the skills themselves are distinct.”
Another misconception is followership means sucking up, brown-nosing or being “political,” said Marc. 

“Working in an organization is a social, communal event. Followership is a way of making the social environment that we have work. It’s providing the complementary skills and abilities and roles to the person who’s taking on that leadership role at that moment in time.”

Yet another mistaken belief is once you are a leader, you no longer follow — which is obviously not true, he said. 
Another problem is people tend to think following is a passive role that is easy to do. 

“Being good at followership takes 100 per cent of your attention and concentration. It is a hard role,” said Marc. 

Positive outcomes
Along with beneficial business outcomes, there are considerable positive personal outcomes that come with strong followership skills, he said. 

“You get more latitude to act, you are more satisfied with your career, you get faster career progression, you have better performance and better performance appraisals.”

Good followership can have particular positive outcomes for senior-level executives — especially since the percentage of performance appraisals that rate on followership seems to go up the higher a person rises in the organization, said Marc. 

“Executives derail at approximately a rate of 50 per cent in (the first) two years, which is a monstrously high number. The Bank of America estimated that executive derailment was costing them about $2.2 million every time it happened. So every time you hire a senior executive, you have about a 50-50 crapshoot of chucking $2 million,” he said. 

As a solution, the bank focused on developing followership skills in senior executives. 

“What they did was develop probably the most extensive onboarding program we’ve ever heard about. It was an 18-month program that included everything from mentoring to special information sessions to coaching, HR coaching and coaching from peers... they had this plan for your first 18 months, and then they gave you a test,” he said. 

Afterward, there was an implicit and an explicit test. The explicit test was to book meetings with peers, direct reports and stakeholders. These were feedback sessions and then they would see what their reaction to the feedback was — that was the explicit test. 

“The implicit test was, do you as a senior executive also book a meeting with your leader and also get feedback from them?” said Marc. “Implicitly, they recognized followership as being a huge driver for the potential of senior executives.”
The bank estimated this approach saved them about $750,000 per person, he said. 

It’s important to consciously think about followership behaviours and how to develop followership skills, said Samantha — and it’s not as difficult as it may initially seem. 

“When you put your mind to it, you can distinguish your leadership behaviour from your followership behaviour and, in fact, we can distinguish the behaviour of others when we pay attention to the two different roles.”

Once you have that understanding, it’s easier to establish role clarity, said Marc.

“Not being clear in the roles and expectations can have a huge productivity and interpersonal impact in our organizations.”

The other half of organizational effectiveness

By Michael Clark

In their new book, Leadership is Half the Story, Marc and Samantha Hurwitz point out what has been hiding in plain sight: There can be no leadership without followership. Further, they are challenging the leadership sacred cow — the idea that, somehow, being a leader is better than being a follower.

In their book and at a recent presentation to the Strategic Capability Network in Toronto, the pair stated: “Followership is a distinct and equally valuable role to leadership.” 

The Hurwitzes make a good case for understanding this perspective and applying that understanding for the benefit of individuals and organizations. 

Critically, they identify that all members of an organization — from the CEO to the shop floor — play both roles, and there are distinct benefits to teasing apart the competencies and behaviours of both. 

What does all this mean for organizational effectiveness? Plenty.

From an OE perspective, the Hurwitzes’ leadership/followership revelations manifest in two ways: the manager/direct report relationship and the peer/peer inter-team or cross-functional relationship. 

These are two places — and these are hiding in plain sight — where the rubber hits the road, where work gets done that is aligned toward the achievement of strategy.

That work is the fundamental building block of an organization’s effectiveness. If it’s muddled, unclear and fraught, then effectiveness is muddled, unclear and fraught. 

Clarity of expectations and behaviours is what is called for in those relationships; what precisely are the authorities and accountabilities of each party involved?

Between managers and direct reports, there are the universal authorities (also known as “rights”) and accountabilities of all employees, and the additional accountabilities and authorities particular to managers. 

Between peers, there are authorities (sanctioned by the managers of both parties) specific to the work being done. 

The mechanics of accountability systems go a long way toward ensuring clarity between roles: “Who has what authority to get something from whom, in which circumstances?” 

The result is an effective organization where employees have the clarity they need to get work done effectively and efficiently.

What Marc and Samantha Hurwitz have done is more precisely define those relationships. Specifically, they have provided us with the means to understand following and leading are equal partners.

That clarity about authority and accountability are only components of a relationship and not an exercise in stronger versus weaker, dominance versus submission or more versus less. 

The Hurwitzes are removing that whiff of judgment from the relationship and focusing on the most effective means of achieving strategy.

We have got to stop thinking about accountability and authority going up and down, and think instead of two roles adding value to each other. 

Marc and Samantha Hurwitz have taken the aging pyramid-shaped organization chart — which is very rusty now — and have gone and turned it on its side.

Michael Clark is director of sales and marketing at Forrest & Company and a commentator on organizational effectiveness for the Strategic Capability Network. Forrest is an organizational transformation firm, with more than 25 years’ experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 

Is being a good follower such a negative thing?

By Trish Maguire

Are you sometimes overwhelmed by yet another article or concept on what it takes to be a successful leader? 

When Samantha and Marc Hurwitz of FliP Skills asked if organizations invest in leadership development, it’s no surprise the response from the audience was a resounding “absolutely.” However, when they asked if organizations invest in followership development, the typical response was “no.” 

If we accept the adage “Leaders cannot lead without followers” then, by the same token, “Without any followers, leaders have nothing to lead,” right? Which suggests there is a synergetic, collaborative and even interdependent relationship between being a leader and a follower. 

It would seem that, in reality, one cannot exist without the other. Both qualities essentially co-exist and together there is potentially no limit to what can be achieved. 

Would it be fair then to say that leaders believe they have followers, whereas followers essentially have a choice as to whether or not to follow? And would you agree the traditional differentiation between leadership and followership is normally represented as superior versus subordinate or manager versus employee?

Such a portrayal, however, condones the notion leadership carries a level of superiority and possibly reinforces the viewpoint that being a good follower can take on a negative implication.

So the real opportunity with the Hurwitz’s “followership” development proposal may be whether or not organizations want both leaders and followers to be active or passive, to be participants or observers. 

If it’s active, then does it not follow that you want and need everyone to excel? If so, is there really any difference between the core characteristics for being a good leader versus a good follower? I would suggest not — with the emphasis on “core.”
If we take a flat organizational structure as an example, leadership roles will continue to be accountable for setting the vision, establishing the corporate goals and strategies, bringing together individual talents, providing clear direction and ensuring the right tools are available. 

However, would it not be to everyone’s advantage to master common capabilities? 

For example: clear communication, both written and verbal; accepting ownership for personal and team responsibilities; committing to delivering the results; using discretionary judgment; demonstrating reliability, honesty and personal integrity; being a collaborative and competent team player; showing up with a positive and enthusiastic attitude; and being both open and willing to receive constructive feedback and create innovative solutions. 

When you think about it, whether you are a follower or leader, the core competencies may not be that different. 

For any employer considering the idea of building a culture where everyone is expected to show up as both the leader or the follower, depending on the situation, then unquestionably it will be mission-critical that everybody learns when to switch roles, how to do so skillfully and how to appreciate the win-win in aligning and accomplishing personal, team and organizational results regardless of title. 

There is clearly no room for blind obedience, ego or self-interest in the true duality of leadership and followership.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the various hypotheses and research material on followership versus leadership that has been around since 1955.

Is it time for your organization’s leadership team to re-examine the concept of superior and subordinate from an entirely different standpoint? Are they prepared to revisit their beliefs behind the role of leadership, management and employee? 

To build a truly holistic culture where leadership is expected from everyone — meaning up, down and sideways — perhaps the timing is right to rethink the co-existence of leadership and followership as a key competitive differentiator.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at

Delving into what makes great followers long overdue idea

By Karen Gorsline

Talent management and development in organizations is largely focused on leadership development. There may be a leadership development curriculum or institute, but few have heard of one for followership development. 

The bulk of the organization — the followers — are often lumped under “team.” Skills sought and training provided are then centred around teamwork. While we all are followers, the term follower has taken on a stigma. 

Somehow, being a team member is more accepted than being a follower, yet the bulk of a team is composed of those who follow a team leader. 

Followers do the work and delving into what makes great followers is long overdue.

In Leadership is Half the Story, Marc and Samantha Hurwitz provide insights into the specific role and tasks of a follower and the skills required. One metaphor they use is that of dance partners. 

They explore the partnership dynamic between a follower and leader and identify complementary skills for each role:

Leadership: decision framing, relationship framing, organizational mentoring, cascade communicating and performance coaching.

Followership: decision advocating, relationship building, organizational agility, dashboard communicating and peak performing.

The contrasting roles illustrate how specific competencies such as creativity or decision-making really have both a leadership competency component and a followership competency component, and they highlight the equally important contribution each role provides in an organization.

Like all models of leadership, the description of leader and follower is not one-size-fits-all. Organizational culture and specific situations may alter what is possible or expected. 

Follower metaphors cover a large range: dance partners; geese flying in formation and periodically changing leadership for the benefit of the flock; herds staying close together and moving in the same direction for maximum defence; lemmings following the lead regardless of the consequences; symbiotic  relationships where each individual pursues his own interests but with a resulting positive outcome for both; managing the boss by manipulation to one’s own ends; et cetera.  

The fact that there are many possibilities does not take away from the value of thinking about what it means to be a follower or to have followers in a broad range of contexts, and providing greater clarity regarding goals, outcomes and expectations.

Gwen Moran, writing for Fast Company magazine in the United States, explores some of the thoughts of Barbara  Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns lecturer in public leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Moran concludes: 

“Followers are much-maligned, but we’re all followers in some areas of our lives. And, in that role, we can learn some important skills that make us better leaders.”

Whether as leader or follower, we can each be more aware of what type of follower we are and what we look for from those who follow us to continue to build an appreciation of the important contributions of followership at work.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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