Joseph Paris, Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, reflects on Willi Schneider’s article, published in the latest issue of LMJ, and expresses his view on followership.

In the May issue of Lean Management Journal, there appears a very well-done article by Willi Schneider entitled “Singling out followers” which goes on at length about the importance of having followers as much as leaders in an organisation.

Whilst Willi does a great job discussing the importance, characteristics, and roles of followers in an organisation, he does not delve into how followers are built. So please indulge me in my effort to supplement.

In my experience, the key elements to building good followers are communication, respect, and trust.

Communication

The first most important factor to consider in building good followers is to define a proper strategy – one that is clear and concise such that everyone can understand where the organisation is headed and the role they are expected to play.

I am not referring to the platitudes and politi-speak that one might find in a mission statement. Such garbled communication is mostly of value to the marketing department and analysts and the meaning does not translate well to the rank-and-file of the organisation.

I am referring to the type of communication that is direct and to-the point, one through which, regardless of what role a person plays in an organisation, they understand completely where their leaders intend to lead them. As Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Respect

The second most important factor in building good followers is for those in leadership roles to demonstrate respect to those they intend to lead, and thereby having the opportunity to earn the respect of those who will follow their leadership.

This is the essence of the “servant leader”; one who believes in a cause greater than themselves – one who “takes all the hits” and concedes the glory of achievement to those he leads. A follower needs to know they are more than just a number, or staffing, “bodies”. In this age of Wall Street and Human Resources, companies do themselves a great disservice when they refer to their people as “headcount”, not to mention its either increasing or decreasing. When
someone leadership expects to have as a follower realises they are just a statistic, all aspirations of a leader building a follower are lost.

Baltasar Gracian is reported to have said, “Respect yourself if you would have others respect you.” To respect an employee and to build a follower, a leader must: lead from the front and not issue edicts from behind a desk, be empathetic to the personal and to lead, build within the employee a “pride in ownership” such that the follower is vested.

Trust

And this third most important factor in building good followers is to build trust. Some might argue that it is the first most important, and perhaps it is. But trust cannot exist without communication and respect coming first – and both communication and respect
can exist without trust – therefore, I believe its rightful place is third.

Trust is in large part based on a confidence one has in someone or something which has been previously tested. Sometimes, the trust is earned based upon prior experience, and sometimes it is thrust upon by circumstance and having the need to trust. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

A follower is always naturally suspicious of a leader because – let’s face it – there is a long history of followers being lied to, taken advantage of, or generally mistreated by their leaders. Therefore, a leader should not expect “instant acceptance” and followership when they are first placed in a position of leadership.

To build trust in a follower (and aside from effective communication and demonstration of respect as noted above), a leader must be consistent and fair. Followers need to know that their leaders will be dependable and steady in the manner in which they demonstrate their leadership skills – and the followers need to know that the leader will treat them fairly and with neither favoritism nor neglect with respect to one another.

Another necessity for building trust is supporting the followers in what is required of them for their present responsibilities as well as supporting their career growth. For instance, how often have we heard (or have even been told) that; “You have to do 10% better next year, but there is no budget to help you.” Being “Yo-Yo” (You’re On Your Own) is now way to build followers. Every strategy needs a plan, and every plan needs logistics before one can think of execution. Logistics are the support.

And trust is a two-way street – always respect the chain-of-command. It does not serve anyone when a follower skips over their leader’s head without first going to the leader – nor does it serve anyone when the leader throws a follower “under the bus” when things go bad.

Although trust is difficult to earn, and so requires considerable time, it is very easy to lose. It can happen in a flash. To build a follower, you must be consistent and steady, balance the expectations with the support offered, spread the glory and take the hits, and most important, never lie – even when the truth is difficult to accept.


Of course there are a plethora of other requirements to build good followers (and good leaders), but the three listed above are the most critical in my opinion – and I would argue that most of the others likely fall under one or more of the above.

In the end, a leader is not a leader by rank, or heritage, or title, or fortune. A leader is a leader because people are willing to follow. In Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior, Richard Marchinko states: “If a leader looks behind him and sees nobody following, he is no longer a leader – he is just another [hapless man] out for a walk”.