Are you a leading follower?

Leaders often find insights by examining the opposite of common knowledge. For example, traditional wisdom might say to collect all necessary information before making a decision.

Colin Powell says that’s too much. During his military career, he tried to never make a decision without 40% of the required information. And he always pulled the trigger after getting 80% of the information.

He recognized the danger in over-thinking. He understood paralysis by analysis. He knew indecision kills.

Is it possible to learn something about leadership by examining the concept of followership?

We hear much about leadership. We don’t hear much about followership. I have heard of Leadership Boerne. I have even graduated from it. I have not heard of Followership Fredericksburg.

If you search Amazon for books on leadership, you’ll find more than 71,000 options. Search “followership” and get 181.

Jack Welch, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Margaret Thatcher are household names. Frank Morton, Bill Edwards, Janet Jones are not.

Following is not glamorous or glorious. It is not in vogue in today’s self-exalting world where worth is measured by number of Twitter followers, not by tweeters followed.

You follow much more than you lead. For every one organization that you lead, you probably follow in ten others. Even in the one that you lead, you also must follow.

You may manage your department but answer to your CEO. You may run a nonprofit but answer to the board. You may lead your family but would be wise to answer to God and the mentors he puts in your life.

In these instances and in general, your ability to lead is directly proportional to your ability to follow.

So what makes a good follower?

It’s not the traditional definition of a “yes man,” a non-thinking, blindly following pushover.

The yes men around Hitler, Saddam, or Gaddafi did not do themselves nor the world any good in the end. Neither did the ones around Ken Lay or Bernie Madoff.

But a modified definition of “yes man,” one that communicates a can-do spirit in tackling any obstacle, is closer to the target.

I group ideal follower characteristics into three buckets.

1. A sense of ownership – committed; passionate; initiating; not the leader but thinks like she is

2. Humble – coachable; teachable; loyal; listening; not the leader and knows it

3. Challenging – candid; questioning; opinionated; not the leader but cares enough about the leader and the organization to revisit the status quo

Balancing these three traits is difficult. The first two usually come easier than the third.

The third will expose the true character of the leader. Will he or she take personally the challenges of a follower or use them to improve individually and organizationally?

In his famous book Good to Great, business guru Jim Collins outlines five levels of leadership. Ironically, the characteristics that lift a person to level four leadership (ambitious, driven) are often the traits that prevent him or her from getting to level five (humble, other-centered).

In the same way, being strong in the first two levels of followership may diminish one’s ability to fulfill the third.

Nevertheless, the three categories of ideal followership will make you a leading follower. They will also make you a leader worth following.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Subscribe to his columns at

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