Do you have good vision — the big-picture kind, not the eyeglass kind? Are you a self-starter?
Can you discern good direction from bad? Are you assertive and bold enough to speak out when you fear the ship is sinking?
Sounds like you’ve got what it takes to be a great …
It’s true. If you haven’t heard this workplace buzzword, you will soon. “Followership,” as opposed to leadership, is where it’s at, whether we’re talking mom-and-pops, international corporations or religious organizations. You might even improve your marriage using followership skills.
Growing research on the 21st-century workforce supports the notion that a hierarchical workplace — i.e., “I’m the boss and you’re not!” — is increasingly ineffective, particularly with telecommuters and younger workers who thrive on collaboration.
Business schools are rethinking their curricula; books are championing the concept, and blogs including creativefollowership.com are springing up.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you get a raise for sitting at your desk bingeing on “Breaking Bad” reruns. Being a great follower takes effort. And pluck. And diplomacy.
And a boss who won’t demote you.
The payoff, though, can be more power and autonomy, and an overall happier vibe about your work in general.
“We’ve worked hard as a team to build the kind of culture that brings forth followership,” said Jeff Warner, president and director of marketing of Twin Cities-based Warners’ Stellian. His 62-year-old appliance business boasts 19 third-generation family members, which translates into a lot of competent followers.
“It’s not just having great people below. It’s enabling them and fostering them and mentoring them to have a voice. Leadership at the top needs to listen.”
Theresa Glomb agrees. “Followership may be an underestimated form of leadership,” said Glomb, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“Sometimes, you are the leader and you’re in charge,” she said. “Other times, you step back and bring out the best in the team. Often, leadership is presented as a big ‘L.’ I like to think of it more as a small ‘l.’ All of us have tremendous power to influence one another.”
Choose a good leader
Followership isn’t a new concept, but it’s gaining speed because of head-spinning changes in our culture and technology over the past few years, said Barbara Kellerman, author of the 2004 book “Bad Leadership” and professor of public leadership at Harvard University.
“People are noisier, more demanding,” said Kellerman, who has been speaking about followership — as integral to good leadership — for more than a decade. “It’s hard being a leader nowadays. Leaders have to be nicer. They have to be careful about ordering people around.”
But followers must be careful, too. They have to choose a good leader to follow and support that leader’s moral compass.
Conversely, they have to figure out who is a lousy leader “and stop them from doing stupid or bad things,” she said.
Ever tried that? It’s not easy.
When Kellerman asks groups, “How many of you have never had a bad boss?” nobody raises a hand. “But, generally,” she said, “they can’t figure out how to stop that person from doing something really harmful.”
In those difficult cases, she counsels us to be strategic. “Figure out how to ‘reach’ your boss, or try to enlist allies in your cause,” she said. “Or try to come with ways of making your case that will not be perceived as threatening.”
But also be realistic. “If you cannot do the right thing without infuriating your boss, be careful,” she advises. “If you are not in a position to quit or lose your job, consider fighting the next battle, as opposed to this one. If you are in a position to quit or lose your job, go for it!”
And find a followership-friendly workplace the next time.
Fluidity of roles
Dan Marshall has co-owned just such a place for years, although he didn’t know he was on the cusp of a white-hot shift in workplace culture.
Sixteen years ago, Marshall and his wife, Millie Adelsheim, opened a St. Paul toy store called Peapods, specializing in natural baby toys. (They’ve just re-branded the store as Mischief, focused on tweens and teens.)
Instead of running the store on a 20th-century business model focused on top-down power and status, they’ve built loyalty by spreading the power around.
“It’s always been very collaborative,” said Marshall, the father of four children, ages 19 to 3. “Millie is better at buying merchandise.” (Something he figured out when the stuff he bought for the store always ended up on tables at annual sidewalk sales.) “I have a greater inclination toward marketing.”
Nineteen-year-old daughter Abigail, a sophomore at Hamline University, set up their Tumblr account, something she’s a whiz at since growing up on social media.
The couple also have tapped employees to teach classes and to share talents at merchandising, building on their capacity to lead at times.
“Employees are always worth listening to,” Marshall said. “As managers, we need to figure out how employees can bring their best to us.”
The couple practice what they preach on the homefront, too. They’ve home-schooled all four of their kids, with divided responsibilities there, too.
“Millie schedules,” he said. “I drive.”
The fluidity of roles, sometimes leading, sometimes following, has had admirable 21st-century results. “We enjoy working together,” Marshall said. “And being together.”