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Why We Need Good Followers

Why We Need Good Followers

by Starling Insights

Starling Insights Editorial Board

May 22, 2024


In a recent column in The Economist, Bartleby argues that, while much thinking has gone into "leadership," the oft-ignored science of "followership" is equally important.

"Most people in the workforce are not leaders and pretty much everyone reports to someone else," Bartleby writes. "The most useful skill to have in your current job may well be how to be a good follower. That leaders depend on followers might seem blindingly obvious, but the way that people lower down the ladder interact with those above them gets much less attention than the reverse."

There are a few reasons for this. First, no effort is required to achieve the position of "follower." Second, very few people have aspirations to follow, and the word "follower" is treated as a pejorative. This manifests in organizations saying they want their employees to behave like "owners." And, third, followers tend to feel much less agency than those who lead them. "Leaders, not followers, set the tone: even if bosses are not old-school command-and-control types, they mould how everyone beneath them behaves," Bartleby explains.

However, these preconceptions do not make followership any less important. When followers are able to think for themselves, and feel safe to speak-up and offer constructive criticism to management, organizations perform more effectively. This requires leaders who are receptive to being challenged rather than those who prefer "craven submissiveness."

Bartleby points to the British Army as a rare example of an organization that has established explicit doctrine around good followership. In our upcoming 2024 Compendium, hear from Langley Sharp MBE, past-Head of The Centre for Army Leadership at the UK Ministry of Defence and author of The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works. In a "Peer Perspectives" piece, Sharp will explore the human need to belong, discuss what compels individuals to follow and lead within groups, and emphasize the importance of understanding these forces to lead complex organizations effectively. ▸ Learn More

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