‘Being a good leader in the Australian Defence Force also requires you to be a good follower’
– ADF-P-0 ADF Leadership
In 2021 the article Leadership vs Likership sought to redefine the term ‘likership’ by looking at it through a positive lens and considering it as a component of leadership, rather than a negative connotation used to describe the absence of strong leadership and discipline. Following the release of the article, I was asked a question about how likership may relate to followership. In particular, if likership is seen as a crucial requirement to being an effective follower. This article seeks to explore the answer to that question.
The article will firstly define what it means to be a follower, what followership is, and the difference between following and being a follower. It will discuss the relevance of likership as a quality of leadership and followership and analyse some of the key characteristics of effective followers. It will then argue that to be an effective follower – much like being an effective leader – it is important to be likable, but personal values shouldn’t be sacrificed in order to be liked.
What is Followership?
Leadership is studied in all training centres and on promotion courses in Army. It’s a key component of being a soldier and an officer and we expect leadership from even the most junior member of a unit. Conversely, very little is written in military doctrine or policy about followership. We write about the importance of following and being a good follower, but we do little to define the terms. We don’t give followership the power it deserves.
What are Followers?
Although it is true that followers need effective leaders. Leaders also need effective followers. All leaders start as followers and although followers can show leadership and be leaders, not all followers are leaders. Followers are crucial for leaders as without followership, leaders have no-one to lead. Similarly, without leadership, followers have no-one to follow.
In the complete absence of leadership, followers are simply individuals. Although it could be said that in the absence of a leader, the strongest follower would naturally become the new leader. Leadership and followership don’t just co-exist, they are co-dependant. Together, leaders and followers generate teamwork amongst a group of individuals. By following a leader, the follower is in fact leading other members to do the same.
Following vs being a Follower
“Leadership is ultimately about generating followership and to be followed you should simultaneously be liked and respected, loved and feared.”
– Likership vs Leadership, 2021
It is true that you can be following a leader without being a follower of that leader. Many of us would have experienced this at some point throughout our career. Whether it be leaders we were reluctantly following without being their follower, or subordinates who begrudgingly followed us without being our followers.
There is a subtle yet powerful difference between following a leader and being a follower of that leader. It is the difference between people merely following you, and you having a followership. This is how leadership and followership work in unison. People who are following will not follow to the end of the earth, while followers are devoted to their cause.
Human connection is an important part of society and part of our personal and professional lives. Human interaction can be positive or negative, but generally everyone strives to work in a harmonious environment and live in a harmonious society. In the military, whilst it is important to have a positive and happy work environment, we must balance this with ensuring the utmost professionalism and maintenance of discipline and the chain of command. We also need to be battle-hardened and resilient enough to deal with the harshest conditions under the harshest circumstances.
We are employed to undertake a difficult and dangerous job, and as such we may be called upon to execute harsh and violent orders. When that time comes, we are expected to execute such orders without emotional bias or question. This is a difficult requirement to meet when we work so closely together and often live with our team for extended periods of time. Due to this, our work mates become some of our closest human companions.
Naturally, we gravitate toward people who are like us, share similar values, and are agreeable to our thoughts and ideologies. Being challenged presents friction and we tend to take the path of least resistance wherever possible. We build bias toward those we share similarities with, those we get along with, and those we have a connection with; ultimately, those we like.
Naturally the opposite can be said for those we don’t share similarities with. We then build our teams with this bias in mind. You can read more on this in Mini-Me Effect- A Reminder on Bias Before PAR Season.
Diversity of Thought
In an organisation that grows instinctive obedience out of necessity, it can be difficult to foster a workplace of diverse thinking. While the execution of violent lawful orders requires a level of compliance with a superior’s thoughts, it shouldn’t preclude the follower from thinking for themselves.
This problem isn’t new. Militaries have operated with it for centuries and in certain circumstances, this is where instinctive obedience must be overridden with intelligent disobedience. Particularly in the case of ethical quandaries. Followers aren’t there to follow blindly. They exist to contribute to the discussion and choose when to stop following.
The Right Mix
Once again, I would like to highlight the importance of distinction between rank groups for the very reasons noted above. Our job is an important one. That importance demands strong leadership that distinctly separates likership from mateship. As a leader, care for your followers. As a follower, care for your leaders. But understand the distinct line that separates the follower from the leader.
Aspects and Qualities of Followership
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the aspects and qualities I see as crucial to followership:
- Loyal – Support and allegiance to the team and the leader.
- Honest – Able and willing to give their absolute honest assessment to inform leadership.
- Assertive – Willing to put forward opinions without fear of repercussion and stands true to their beliefs.
- Approachable – Able to be confided in by leaders and other followers.
- Committed – Support the leader and contribute to the team.
- Personable – Approachable and pleasant to be around.
- Trusted – Ability to be confided in over sensitive matters.
- Dependable – Relied on to do what is required of them.
- Considerately Compliant – The ability to put forward considered feedback when required, while fully supporting the plan once a decision is made.
- Selfless – For the team, not themselves.
- Likable – Easy to get along with and pleasant to be around.
Liked Followers are More Effective
So, if you are liked as a follower, does that make you more effective as one? It is without a doubt considerably easier to work for a boss that likes you or at the very least gets along with you. As a leader it is also considerably easier to work with a follower that you like. If you aren’t liked, the additional friction generated can affect the wider team and make it more difficult to achieve common goals.
The machine of people systems can grind to a halt when there is personality conflict. It slows down decision making, generates bias against solutions, allows office politics to overrule rationale, and can be toxic and destructive for the wider organisation.
When it comes to being a likeable follower, it is less about being someone a leader would want to have a beer with and more about someone a leader would want on their team. A likeable follower is for the team and makes their leader’s job easier. Now it must be noted that as always, individuals should not sacrifice their values or act differently to their true self just to be liked as a follower, or a leader for that matter. But likership is a powerful tool. It reduces friction and generates better teamwork. We all need to aim to be the best follower we can be while staying true to ourselves.
Good leadership doesn’t just create good followership, it also inspires followers to lead. Without first being a follower, you cannot become a successful leader. Without continuing to follow, you will not remain a leader. All leaders must follow when required and be capable of generating followership, not just have followers under their direction. Without likership, the friction generated between individuals can break teams. Overall, it is important to be liked as a follower and the most likable followers create the strongest followerships, which in turn assists the leader.