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Is Followership the New Leadership?

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Do you remember playing Follow the Leader when you were a child? The rules were pretty simple — you walked around in a line and mimicked whatever actions or gestures the leader in front was doing.

I remember playing, and I remember always wanting to be the leader. I am sure many of you felt the same way. Luckily, the adults made sure everyone got a turn as leader.

I thought about this game when a recent article in the Wall Street Journal captured my attention. Titled “The Joy of Following,” the articled discussed a new trend in corporate training called “follwership.” As you can deduce, this is in contrast to the typical focus on leadership.

The article is quick to point out that followership is not blind faith in the boss or simply doing what you are told. Nor is it the same as being a “team player.” Rather, author Sue Shellenbarger wrote, “skillful followers are self-starters who think independently, notice and solve problems, help the boss meet goals and deliver criticism to higher-ups when needed.”

That sounds like a pretty vital role to me. But in reality, do we encourage anyone to aspire to be the follower? Is it possible that even as little kids engaging in a playground game, we already knew that being the leader was the favored position in society? And how does this focus on leadership impact business students both in and out of the classroom?

When we interview prospective students, mainly high school seniors, for the Davidson Management Honors Program, we always ask them to describe their last group project and what their role was. Not surprisingly for high-achieving students (as many of our JSOM students are), the applicants were almost always the leader of the group — delegating tasks and ensuring the work gets done. Keeping in line with societal norms, this is exactly what we want — or at least expect — to hear.

The tricky part comes when they are in their classes in college and their group is now five or six students who also gravitate toward the leadership role. Everyone wants to manage, but who is actually doing the work? Or when a student organization is just getting off the ground and the excited, innovative founders all have great ideas, but perhaps lack in the follow-through and implementation. Leaders are known for big-picture thinking, strategy and delegation. This is important. But there needs to be someone there to EXECUTE as well.

This is where the worker bee (The term I prefer to “follower”) comes in. The WSJ article points to research that posits that 70 percent to 90 percent of all work is actually done by people in roles defined as followers. The workers plan, research, and anticipate and resolve challenges. In short, they bring the project to fruition.

And of course different scenarios will call for different positions. In some groups, you might be the leader. In others, your strengths or knowledge are better suited as the implementer. Experience, judgment and a healthy dose of humility will be the key in figuring out what role the situation dictates.

Despite my youthful aspirations in Follow the Leader, I have actually identified more with the worker bee position throughout my professional life. I have grown into leadership positions and developed some of the traits attributed to leaders, but my natural strengths — the ones that come easiest to me — are more in line with the follower. Give me a blank sheet of paper, and I will fill it with a detailed task list over an idea brainstorm any day!

But my overall view is that the line between leader and follower is pretty blurry. You really can’t have one without the other. And as other movements, such as “servant leadership,” gain more traction, the way we look at and define leadership will continue to evolve.

As educators, I believe we have a responsibility to provide experiences and training for our students to develop both of these pertinent skill sets and prepare them to adapt to changing business environments and needs.

I encourage students to continue to seek out leadership roles and develop the important characteristics associated with being a leader. But don’t downplay the experiences you gain as worker bees. Because with few exceptions, when you start your first job, that is exactly what you will be. And with no adults keeping watch to ensure everyone has a turn as the leader, it will be up to you prove that is where you belong!

How do you define a leader and a follower and their roles in the business world? Do you see yourself as one more than the other?

Caryn Berardi

Caryn is the Associate Director for the Davidson Management Honors Program in JSOM. Caryn started her career in public relations before transitioning to higher education. She loves engaging with students and helping them grow both inside and outside of the classroom. Caryn received a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University and a Master’s in Education from the University of North Texas. Read more articles

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