How to Lead as a Follower

Written by: Christopher Sell

Primary Source: The Wednesday Wake Up



I know there’s always a lot of talk about leadership.

But I’ve always been enamored with people who seem to be great followers.

And I’m not talking about the folks who just say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, m’am” to their boss at every turn. I’m talking about the middle-management employees, young professionals, and the front lines in the family tree of the organization who embrace what it means to give all they’ve got for the sake of the team and to follow someone else’s vision. In other words, I’m referring to the people who live out the mantra — leaders often times are the best followers — that is so critical to organizational growth.

I remember back to my days as an Orientation Student Leader in college, during which I had the privilege of helping wide-eyed incoming students transition to their new world as college freshmen. Summer orientation proved to be a laboratory for leadership for student employees like me who willingly gave up their summers in exchange for a lifetime’s worth of memories, friends, and lessons on leadership. And it was during this time when I was first introduced to the concept of leading as a follower.

As an Orientation Student Leader, I was part of a group of 36 student employees charged with facilitating groups of students each day during their summer college orientation. In turn, we reported to a small group of student managers (who all had been orientation leaders in the past) as well as several full-time professional staff members at the university. A staff of 45+ seems like a decent amount, but in reality, we were a relatively small ad-hoc organization when you consider we served upwards of 3,000 students and their families within five weeks. Each student leader like me was responsible for a group of incoming students during their 2-day visit, and soon after the students arrived on campus, we were on our own to ensure students received a dynamic tour of campus and arrived to each of their presentations in a timely fashion throughout the two days. So it was imperative that each student leader like me follow directions precisely.

It became obvious that some of the best leaders within our team were the best followers. Some of the Orientation leaders — despite being at the bottom of the hierarchical structure of our team — proved to be exemplary leaders in a variety of ways. It seems like followers who are great leaders share a few similar characteristics:

They take ownership of their role within the organization on a daily basis. It’s easy for employees who report to others to denounce a vision that comes from the top, or become frustrated at their lack of involvement in decision making that happens at the highest levels. But some of the best followers exchange second-guessing and backside chatter for a positive attitude. Followers who get behind someone else’s vision and focus on contributing all they can to the team’s goal are, in fact, leading.

They choose positivity.  Just as negativity can become exponentially toxic, positivity can become exponentially infectious. Just this morning, I went for a 5 mile run. Toward the end of my workout, as I turned the corner on our street to head home, I ran past my neighbor who was outside his home in the front lawn. He pumped his fist in the air and yelled some words of encouragement. I could literally feel myself running faster during those last two minutes of my run. My neighbor’s positive attitude had a direct impact on my performance. Followers who lead well understand that a positive attitude can go a long way in fostering success for the individual and the team.

They want to be part of the solution. Superb followers tend to want to be part of the action. They will frequently come up with new ideas to solve problems or enhance services on the behalf of the team. While they’re still respectful of boundaries and the limits of their role regarding organizational decision-making, fantastic followers will be part of the solution. This creates what Andy Stanley refers to as “healthy tension” where team members are pushing the leaders at the top to stay engaged and at the cutting-edge of their industry and their own leadership development.

There are lots of definitions for leadership, but I happen to subscribe to the belief that leadership is influence. That’s why some of the best leaders are indeed followers. Regardless of their position or title, followers focus on ways to influence others in a positive way.

So on this Wednesday, I’d encourage you to wake up and consider the ways you might be able to lead as a follower. Next time you’re caught in a rut at work, or think you can’t make an impact because you’re not in a decision-making role, think again.

Your leaders will thank you.

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My name is Christopher Sell and I'm an educator in higher education. At my core, I'm passionate about creating synergy and connecting people to opportunity. I place tremendous focus on collaboration, strategic planning, forward-thinking, and teamwork in any professional environment. As an alumnus of Western Michigan University (WMU) and Michigan State University (MSU), I'm equally committed to leveraging relationships with industry and students/graduates to retain & attract talent in the state of Michigan and contribute to the economic revitalization of the "Mitten State" that I love so much. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of the Pure Michigan campaign.

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