The Role of Followers in Leadership

The Role of Followers in Leadership

the role of leaders and the role of followers
the role of leaders and the role of followers

By Monica Mattioli 

Followers are essential. Leaders can’t lead without them.

Leaders and followers are inextricably linked. Attributed to Gandhi: “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader” (Sic). It is a fact that everyone has a boss. Every person, no matter how powerful, is accountable to somebody. Therefore, everyone experiences the role of follower.

High integrity followership is a challenge. It helps to remember that the person following you is always watching, observing, learning, ruling in and ruling out. Your followers, whoever they may be, relate to your example in the same ways you relate to your leader. Your followers might be employees, coworkers, customers, clients, social contacts or family members. Leading – and following – happen in a variety of settings.

How might we, as leaders, pursue an attitude and identity of followership? How might each of us mindfully embody the attributes of high integrity followership? By embodying the attributes of high integrity.

What not to do:

  • Criticize the boss using disparaging terms.
  • Belittle subordinates.
  • Contradict oneself (also known as speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth).
  • Harbor resentment.

What to do:

  • Elevate any concerns with management directly, in a manner that is constructive and productive.
  • Coach subordinates respectfully and authentically.
  • Articulate objections coherently and accurately with a goal of betterment.

There is a grey area between leadership and followership. Sometimes leaders fail to lead. Followers sometimes step up and take the lead, in the absence of effective leadership. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as, “managing up.”

What Is Managing Up?

Managing up requires certain criteria if it is to be effective. First and foremost, it requires integrity of motivation. The goal is to effect the best possible outcome, not to humiliate or embarrass the leader, and certainly not to steal the leader’s job. Employ the Golden Rule.

Managing up also demands a requisite level of expertise.  Be sure to know what is at stake. Don’t reject what is in the proverbial box unless you are sure about it. Show patience, consideration, and kindness first.

Check your motivation for managing up. Be sure your motives are pure and directed toward overall success for everyone concerned. Appreciate and embrace your followership. Managing up is not opportunistic.

Be prepared to step back and let the leader lead. The goal of managing up is not to usurp a position or status that is not yours. If your overall goal is to be a leader, you must go through the growth process to get there, not co-opt the position of another.

If you are uncertain your course of action, try putting yourself in the position of leader. Consider how you would react if a subordinate did whatever it is that you intend to do. Would you thank your follower for the assistance? Would you resent it as a slight? Would you go so far as to take some action to remediate the behavior and perhaps diminish the subordinate’s chances for future job advancement?

Walk a mile in the leader’s shoes and, if possible, let those shoes be sandals, Franciscan style.

About the Author

Monica Mattioli is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, with a major in Modern Languages at the bachelor’s level, and Roberts Wesleyan College, with a major in Organizational Management/Strategic Leadership at the master’s level.

Rounding out a career of more than twenty years of corporate marketing and sales support experience in Fortune 500 corporations, as well as regional companies, Monica transitioned to higher education and nonprofit management. This combination of private sector and nonprofit sector experience has led to a variety of leadership roles, speaking engagements and published work in the areas of leadership, fundraising, marketing and public relations.

A native of Upstate New York, Monica currently serves with Catholic Charities in Southwest Florida as Director of Development.


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