The more I think about and practice leadership, the more convinced I am that we also need to hone the discipline and skill of following. “Followership,” although less lauded, is every bit as noble and grand – and in many instances, even more critical to the success of an outcome. In fact, odd as it seems, certain followers have more influence than the original leader.
Derek Sivers made a terrific case for this in his now-famous TED presentation that showed how the First Follower transformed the act of a crazy guy on a hill into a mini-movement. It’s quite informative and entertaining, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out. It focuses on the role of a leader to embrace the first followers.
This concept isn’t new. One of my favorite Harvard Business Review articles was titled “In Praise of Followers.”I first read it in 1988. What I love about this article is that it focuses on the importance of following (vs. the importance of embracing followers – which is the point of the TED presentation). Author Robert E. Kellyoutlines four qualities of effective followers:
- They manage themselves well.
- They are committed to an organization and to a purpose, principle, or person outside of themselves.
- They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact.
- They are courageous, honest and credible.
He goes on to state that “self-confident followers see colleagues as allies and leaders as equals.” Kelly’s thinking has stuck with me for all these years – as a follower, then leader, then “leader as follower.” It’s influenced whom I’ve hired, and profoundly influenced how I lead – as I’m surrounded by people far more gifted than I.
So after more than two decades (ouch!), I dug up the article and looked at it again. And one of the call-out quotes jumped off of the page; “Groups with many leaders can be chaos. Groups with none can be very productive.”
I don’t think it was coincidence that I was drawn to resurrecting that article just as we were about to post my interview with Jonathan Spitz, Artistic Director of Orpheus, the highly-accaimed conductor-less orchestra. The Wall Street Journal’sCorinna Da Fonseca-Wollheimbeautifully describes the Orpheus Method and what she calls ”the egalitarian organizational principle at the heart of the orchestra” in her March 22 article, A Personal Code of Conduct.
Jonathan told me about the phenomenal musicians that Orpheus attracts, virtuosos in their own right. With Orpheus, each must be a leader and a follower. And they see success (collectively and individually) in their “ability to yield… the ability to play someone else’s interpretation as well as their own.”
Wow. Now that’s music to my ears.