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Taking the Helm: What does it take to be a good follower?

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Over the years I’ve written a lot about leadership, but rarely do I cover what it takes to be a follower – much less, a good follower. It’s easy to overlook this crucial component, but leaders are only leaders if they actually have followers. And for the record, leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the follower. So let’s spend some time focused on followers this month.

What I mean by followers are employees – in this case, crew members – who willingly and enthusiastically want to follow the leader. Effective followers will go above and beyond the bare minimum in their role and are seen as genuine team players.  They are crucial to the success of the team.

Being an employee doesn’t automatically make someone a follower. Simply because crew do their job as required of them by the captain, chief engineer, first mate or chief stew doesn’t necessarily mean they consider their supervisor a leader.

Followers ultimately decide themselves whom they see as a leader, and sometimes the leader they recognize may not be the one with the official title. A leader is viewed as a leader based on the behavior they display, and on how well their followers succeed. It’s the leader’s behavior – being trustworthy, being credible, setting clear expectations, being honest, training team members, having a vision, etc. – that creates the environment for people to decide whether they want to follow or not.

So how does a follower decide if someone is a genuine leader?  Some questions to ask include:

  • Does the leader make a point to train their crew, new and old, on a regular basis so they are as skilled as they can be?
  • Does the leader allow crew members autonomy to get the job done versus micromanaging?
  • Does the leader encourage everyone to be accountable for their actions by creating a safe environment where people are not condemned for making mistakes?
  • Does the leader ask teammates what they need to enable them be better at their jobs?
  • Does the leader praise and recognize team members for their good work?

A follower must look for a leader who empowers them to be the best version of themselves. But the responsibility for success doesn’t rest solely on the leader. Crew members have to take ownership of the part they play in their empowerment and how much hard work they’re willing to put in for the empowerment they’ve been given to succeed. Think of it as an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between leaders and followers.

For example, a leader can’t empower followers to be accountable. They either are or they aren’t. The same holds true with decision making. A crew member can be given training, knowledge and the necessary tools to make decisions – but whether they make the best decision in the moment depends on the crew member, not the leader. All a leader can do is create an environment that encourages their crew members to succeed. The responsibility between leaders and followers is that each will do their best to ensure the success of their team.
Whatever their role may be, followers can empower themselves by:

  • Assuming responsibility
  • Being accountable
  • Accepting help and assistance from others
  • Taking initiative
  • Using positive language when communicating

If followers see the leader trying their best to develop and grow the team, crew members may be more willing to follow where the leader goes.

Effective leaders know the key to employee success and follower development rests on empowering people around them. Genuine leaders want to help people figure out their own way, develop talents,  and focus on purpose and goals.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome below.

 

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