Leadership vs. Follower Styles

Understanding your follower style explains your leadership style.

Understanding your follower style explains your leadership style.

I spoke last weekend at PodCampAZ, and after the session, someone asked me a very interesting question. During my session, I pointed out what was my opinion and where others would disagree with me. And during my session, someone in the audience took issue with one of my positions and talked about why I was wrong in my position.

Dealing With Hecklers

The person who approached me asked me how I kept my cool with this audience heckler. The truth is, I didn’t see that person as  heckler at all. I walked into the presentation the same way I walk into all of my work. Much of what I do, what I choose to do, is based on my experience and my philosophies about the work. I welcome divergent view points. In fact, I could have made the same argument against my opinion as my alleged heckler audience member.

I found my peace with my personal experience very early in my professional career. I keep an open mind about ideas and competing theories about things because I test everything in the crucible of personal experience. I try things out. I see what happens. I might have a preference going into a situation, but I don’t take a position until I have experience that shows me the truth for me. I am willing to do several tests, and repeat tests over time, but it is the outcome that determines my position, not my hoping or wishing for an outcome.

Leadership Experience

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to become a leader early in my career. I found myself leading a team of seasoned professionals who were older and had more years of experience. Talk about jumping into the deep end! From the start, I had to be open to other ideas and be willing to try things that perhaps were not my first idea of a good strategy. I learned much about the process of leading and how to earn the respect of my team. Those lessons formed my leadership style.

Being A Follower

The challenge that I have now in the middle of my career is that I expect the people who lead me to be the same kind of leader I am. I expect them to appreciate my suggestions for improvement. I expect them to recognize my dedication to the project and that my effort earns me their respect. But that isn’t always the way it works out. I often find myself counting the days until a project ends because the project manager’s leadership skills exhaust me or provide me with a constant stream of minor irritations. I sometimes joke that I should offer a basic leadership course as a way to fix my leadership issues, but I know that would not really solve anything.

Instead, I try to adjust my follower style so I don’t crash into the rigid leadership walls put around me. If I know my suggestions are not welcome, I do my best to keep my mouth shut. I also take the risk of doing what I feel is best under the guideline that asking forgiveness is sometimes more effective than asking permission. That’s not my favorite follower mode, as you might guess. If I feel I must resort to that strategy, my days on a project are numbered.

The truth is that I don’t want to run everything I participate in. I am very happy having a slice of a project, of limiting my personal responsibility to something I feel I can manage and keep the balance of the rest of my life. I’m happy being a follower. But I’m most happy when I support  a leader who appreciates an assertive, self-determined follower.

Leadership vs. Follower Styles

Today, I ran across a video blog that suddenly shed new light on my challenge. Bret Simmons believes that our experiences as followers determines if we will be likely to get a chance to lead, and forms our leadership style long before we actually do lead. The good news of this is that we can make choices to change our follower style that will make us better leaders.

In my community, I see people who want to contribute to the community and are frustrated because they are in follower positions. I see some of them lash out against leaders in what I see as unproductive ways: criticism, backstabbing, and negative comments. After watching this video, I have a new framework for processing this behavior and understanding its importance. I now understand that their follower style isn’t likely to develop a productive leadership style. Now, I’m wondering if there is a market for a course to teach people how to become independent or partner followers like Simmons describes.

See for yourself the brilliance of his observations.

Simmons points out the differences between dependent vs. independent leaders and followers. I encourage you to take his observations to heart, and decide which kind of leader you want to be. Then set out to be that kind of a follower.

P.S. To any leaders out there who find me volunteering for your project or working on your team for a while, you are forewarned. I’m an independent follower. Embrace it, or expect that we will have a rocky road while we figure things out.

About author:

Charlene is the information strategist behind Crow Information Design.

4 Responses to “Leadership vs. Follower Styles”

  1. Nice post. I agree with you.

    I have blogged that the transition between leadership and followship is like a leadership dance. A good dancer chooses to move between leadership and follower roles, and more.

    Thanks for the reminder for me to improve my followership.

  2. Charlene says:

    Thanks for the comment, Don. A dance is a great analogy for the interaction. Check out Bret’s video blog, he’s saying lots of smart things there.

  3. Bret Simmons says:

    Love this post, Charlene! I can see myself in the experiences you describe. I have personally stopped expecting my leaders to lead the way that I lead. For almost all of them their cake is baked. I now focus more on encouraging my followers to follow the way that I follow. By doing that, we build the next generation of leaders. Thanks! Bret

  4. Charlene says:

    Bret, I’m working on changing my expectations for my leaders, also. Thanks for giving me a frame of reference to understand what has been a frustrating dynamic up to now.

Leave a Reply

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy. Comments from first time participants are moderated.

CommentLuv badge

Have a blog? Allow CommentLuv to add your last blog post to your comment.

Sorry, you can't to browse this website.

Because you are using an outdated version of MS Internet Explorer. For a better experience using websites, please upgrade to a modern web browser.

Mozilla Firefox Microsoft Internet Explorer Apple Safari Google Chrome