Followership Is the New Leadership

In an interactive breakout session at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Annual Conference and Exposition held recently in Las Vegas, training and leadership expert Cory Bouck used a modern playground analogy—business is dodgeball, not yoga. The yoga kids will end up working for the dodgeball kids. How can you train to succeed in a dodgeball world where all of your competitors are trying to leverage every one of your weaknesses? By honing your followership skills.

Bouck is the director of organizational development and learning at Johnsonville Sausage, LLC, and author of The Lens of Leadership: Being the Leader Others WANT to Follow (Aviva Publishing, 2013).

What Is Followership?

Bouck defines “followership” as “a set of learnable, practicable skills that make me professionally essential to my boss and teammates, and also regularly create opportunities for me to demonstrate my superior leadership skills.”
Bouck acknowledges that no one grows up looking to join the Future Followers Club. However, there is an impending leadership gap due to Baby Boomers retiring (“And why is this important?” interjected Bouck. “Because business is dodgeball.”) and the key to multigenerational leadership lies in the contradictory-sounding concept of followership.

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Bouck polled the crowd with the question: Is making your boss look great your most important or primary professional duty? 61% said Yes. Bouck suggested that the percentage should be higher. Why? Because in today’s business world, everybody has a boss (even the boss), and both leader and follower—which are paradoxically simultaneous roles—must know how to serve (i.e., follow) up, down, and sideways on any team. Followership is not a subservient inverse to leadership, Bouck emphasizes. (It’s notable that after his presentation, Bouck once again polled the crowd on whether making the boss look great was a primary professional duty. The second time, 83% said Yes.)

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The Roles of a Follower

So, what are the roles of followership that allow employees to serve without being subservient? Bouck outlines four of them:

  • Valet. This type of follower knows what’s ahead and lays everything out that the team needs to be successful, just as a valet lays out all of the clothing, gear, and equipment for the day. Think of Alfred, the butler, from Batman, says Bouck.
  • Socrates-like Mentor. This followership role is good at asking provocative, counterintuitive questions to provide new perspective. Perspective is required in followership, notes Bouck. Often, team members need to have an understanding of not only their jobs but also their boss’s job (and sometimes, even their boss’s boss’s job).
  • Chameleon. Have the professional maturity to know when to be visible and when to be subtle, or even invisible, says Bouck. Great followership is sometimes about not having to always be the center of attention.
  • Pastor/Parent. Be available to hear the sins and complaints of your team without recrimination, and also realize the proper time to have a loving, nurturing demeanor, says Bouck. However, the pastor/parent role also knows when to make others on the team take their medicine. Success in this type of followership will make you a trusted advisor and influencer.

Bouck says that if you can be an enabling valet, a provocative consultant, a situational chameleon, and a trusted advisor, you will actually be leading through followership. And why is this important? Bouck’s answer: Because business is dodgeball.
In tomorrow’s Advisor, more insight from Bouck on followership.