Following is just as important as leading. To be a good follower means more than merely doing what your boss tells you but trying to see the bigger picture and understand where the boss is going. I maintain that you’ve got to learn how to follow before you can learn how to lead. So how do you become a good follower?
To begin with, a good follower always works the boss’ agenda first and foremost. Even in small teams, it’s usually not possible for the team to fully understand the environment where the leader is operating. People go to different meetings, are privy to different levels of information, and have a relationship with their own bosses (everybody has a boss). No matter how effective or ineffective a leader is in doing his job, the team must continue to do what they’ve been hired to do to the best of their ability. There are both altruistic and selfish reasons for taking this stand.
Basic self-respect and integrity require an employee to do what he is being paid to do. Admittedly it is no small task to continue to perform if one is working for someone who’s either incompetent or abusive, but “slacking” or not performing degrades a person’s self-worth and in the end does more harm to the employee than an abusive boss could ever do. I worked for a very abusive boss once, and the experience was probably the worst year of my career. One of the only things that helped me get through that year was the knowledge that I was giving my best effort and that I had done right by the organization. Even though my boss didn’t treat me with respect, I had maintained my self-respect because I didn’t let my teammates down. It was that continued performance that got me hired away to another job, a promotion of sorts, that accelerated my career. Had I given up and allowed my performance to suffer, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.
The personal reasons are probably more obvious. Everyone has a boss, and if you’re performing, eventually your boss’s boss will notice. Even if no one in your organization notices, your performance won’t go unnoticed by your customers (or even competitors). Always doing your best and demonstrating loyalty to your organization and your boss as a good follower are qualities employers look for when hiring. By working hard for your old boss, you could work yourself into a better position or a promotion.
As a leader, you can build good followers by modeling the behavior yourself. For example, when given direction from your boss, pass it on with the same enthusiasm as if it were your own idea. That might take a little acting at times, but if you hold your boss up to ridicule, you’ll be opening the door to your subordinates to ridicule you. Loyalty is contagious; demonstrate loyalty and you’ll engender loyalty in return.
Another way to model good followership is to work your own job as if you were sitting in your boss’s seat. By trying to understand your boss’s stressors and stakeholders, you can better deliver what your boss expects of you. No one likes to do “re-work,” least of all a busy executive. A follower will be much closer to “final” if she constructs the response to a task or builds a product with her boss in mind. Most leaders are busy, and while most try to communicate clearly, no one is a perfect communicator. Actively listening for context when your boss assigns a task, then anticipating the questions your boss will be asked by their boss, gets the product much closer to final.
Figuratively putting yourself in your boss’s seat also has the benefit of training you for the next level of responsibility. Eventually your boss will want to send someone to a meeting in his place, and the person he or she knows understands the environment the best is likely to get the nod. That sort of confidence and exposure can lead to better performance and even personal advancement. Clearly, it’s bad form to compete with your boss for his job, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. But there are always opportunities for career advancement, and if a leader is committed to developing their subordinates, they won’t pass up the chance to recognize and reward talent. Even if that’s not the case, being a good follower usually makes the team a better place to work in general. When your boss knows he can count on you, you’re much less likely to get micro-managed and much more likely to be successful. Everyone benefits when the leader and team work together smoothly.