The Power of Good Followership | November 10, 1017

The Power of Good Followership

In previous bench talks I have talked to you about what it means to be a good leader, and today I want add another layer and talk about what good following looks like.

Most of us—even those in high positions—spend a good part of our lives not leading but following. An excellent School president like Matt Smith follows by listening and then implementing the good ideas of his cabinet and of the advisors around him. In the same way, I follow the Board of Trustees; I delegate areas of responsibility to other teachers and administrators, and I adhere to the guidelines established by various national education groups. Why is it that although most of us spend our time following more than leading, we tend to be preoccupied with leading?

Part of our glorification and obsession with leadership comes from the message we get from sports heroes, politicians and even colleges and universities who, on their websites, say they are looking for the next generation's leaders or they claim that they educate students to be citizen-leaders. But two years ago this admission focus began to change, and if you read a document called "Turning the Tide" published by the Making Caring Common Project, a study at Harvard, you will see over 85 admission offices from our nation's top colleges and universities report their desire for students who demonstrate true citizenship and are working for the common good, not necessarily from leadership positions. This report says, in effect, that colleges want students who lead balanced lives, who pursue their interests with energy and enthusiasm, and who work cooperatively and collaboratively with others.

Our society depends on good followership, and we have a myth that following means being passive and obedient, and this is not the case. The best followers are not "yes" people. They are not sheep or lemmings. They are independent problem solvers. They are self-starters, and they are risk takers. The most effective followers are able to think on their own. They have independence and can work without close supervision. The best followers are not intimidated by hierarchy, and they are able to disagree with leadership when it comes to the needs of the organization.

In fact, the most important quality of a good follower is the ability to think independently – to join a leader who may not be popular, but has a great idea, and to resist a leader who may be popular but is leading the group in the wrong direction. We have plenty of examples in history where blindly following the leader led to disaster.

Beech-nut the food company is now doing very well, but awhile ago a man named Jerome LiCari who worked in Research and Development for the company accumulated strong evidence that the apple concentrate the company was buying was adulterated, meaning it was impure. He went straight to his boss with his findings, and the boss threatened LiCari with dismissal for lack of team spirit. So LiCari then went to the president of the whole company, and the president, too, would not listen to LiCari.

So LiCari quit because he thought the company was unethical to be putting adulterated apple concentrate in its apple juice.

Five years later the company had a huge lawsuit and had to pay $25 million and lose 20% of their market share. The boss was indicted on several hundred counts of conspiracy, and he pleaded guilty. LiCari is an example of a good follower: he was loyal, honest, and candid with his superiors.

LiCari had all the qualities that we usually connect with leaders because we stereotype followers as passive. But it's important to know that effective followers have the same qualities as leaders: As a follower, LiCari took initiative, he had self-control, commitment, talent, honesty, credibility, and courage.

I encourage all of you to think how you can embrace the traits of being a good follower. Show that you can be committed to something larger than yourself, that you are competent and focused, enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant. You don't need the star billing to earn pride and fulfillment from your efforts as long as you choose your leaders thoughtfully, judiciously and courageously.

Now we will watch a video on what a first follower might look like.

"Turning the Tide" Report from Making Caring Common, Harvard Graduate School of Education January 2016

"Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers" by Susan Cain The New York Times March 24, 2017

"In Praise of Followers" By Robert Kelley Harvard Business Review November 1988


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