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Followers Need More than Just Technical Skills

(I)n searching so zealously for better leaders, we tend to lose sight of the people these leaders will lead. Without his armies, after all, Napoleon was just a man with grandiose ambitions.
- Robert Kelly, 1988


As we discussed in our January blog, this year we’re exploring competencies needed to be successful in the workplace, regardless of your formal title or role. Managers and leaders need more than just technical skills – they also need knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs, a.k.a. “competencies”) related to leading the organization, their unit, and their team(s). However, in any leadership situation, there are people beyond the formal leader who must be considered: the followers. The roots of the follower’s role can be found in Aristotle’s argument in The Politics(1) that, as [organizational] citizens, we have a duty to rule and be ruled in turn. More recently, scholars have argued that the leader-follower connection is a partnership, which in turn balances power and authority on both sides of the relationship (2,3,8). Viewing this relationship as bidirectional requires us to consider the followers with the same vigor as we do the leaders. When we acknowledge that followers also have power – they are partners who co-produce, choose to engage, and enable organizational success – we must understand what they bring to the organization and contribute to its performance. In turn, we need to examine what competencies they should possess to be successful in their roles.

Unfortunately, most development programs focus solely on inculcating leadership competencies in those who fill formal leadership roles. However, as there are only so many of these positions in organizations, most workers are actually followers throughout their careers or, depending on the situation, can flow between leader and follower roles on a regular basis (7). In fact, researchers estimate that as much as 80% of an organization’s success is directly attributable to the contribution of its followers (5). This suggests that, by failing to consider what makes someone an effective follower and if an organization’s followers possess those attributes or capabilities, leaders are potentially undermining their organization’s ability to succeed.

Consider the following scenario:

Over several years, a small software company built up a dedicated clientele who appreciated their technical expertise and individualized approach to customer service. Each member of the team had their own specialty – tech support, client relations, project management, product development – with the company’s founder and CEO managing overall operations in addition to pursuing new clients. Team members worked together like a well-oiled machine, enabling the company to grow at a manageable rate while maintaining its ability to connect directly with clients. While the company was able to weather the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic by tightening expenditures and pivoting on some of their product lines, as time went on, the organization began to experience some internal changes. As new business leads became scarcer, the CEO began to spend more and more of her time focused on chasing those opportunities and leaving the central coordination of the team’s work to the team members themselves. However, before long, conflicts began to crop up between colleagues as they disagreed about what work to prioritize and where to focus their increasingly constrained resources.

Many of us, in considering this scenario, would consider this a breakdown of leadership, with the CEO’s abdication of her coordinating responsibilities as the driver of interpersonal conflicts and work breakdowns among the team members. But are the followers culpable as well for some of the emerging dysfunction? Organizational experts contend that good followers are, first and foremost, good workers: they are committed to their organization and its success and, therefore, manage themselves and their contributions effectively. While leaders have a responsibility to foster the environment that allows for these qualities, followers are responsible for ensuring they are, first and foremost, good workers.

For organizations to thrive, all of their members (leaders and followers) need to focus on the development of specific followership competencies. As employers tend to focus on specific technical skills when hiring, they may not evaluate new employees for followership competencies. Afterall, who ever thought you could – or would need to – teach someone how to follow? But we need to challenge the assumption that this all falls on the leader. As Riggio notes, followers, and their behaviors, are as critical to organizational function and success as leaders, a reality increasingly reflected in interactional and relational theories of leadership (9).

Followers have the responsibility to participate fully in their role, to collaborate with their teammates, and to contribute to their organization. To do so, they need more than technical skills…but just what are “follower competencies”? With most research focused solely on the leader or on technical capabilities, there is a gap between what we need to know and what we actually know to be successful organizational citizens. To explore this, we look to some leadership competency frameworks to guide here.

Many leadership competencies can apply to followers as well because various situations can influence, or even determine, whether a person leads or follows. While formal leadership roles may be stable across time periods, who fills informal positions of leadership can shift constantly depending on circumstances. Every position in an organization, even at the highest levels, is, ultimately, one of followership; in other words, everyone has a “boss,” even the CEO, who answers to shareholders, and the elected executive, who obeys the mandates of the polity. From this perspective, leaders must ensure their followers are primed for success to enable their collaboration towards collective goals. By inculcating an active sense of followership through key competencies, leaders promote good organizational citizenship and attachment, critical contributors to engaged, productive workforces. A LinkedIn Learning employee retention survey found organizations offering learning opportunities are increasing their employee retention, because three of the top five reasons people look for a new job relate to learning: “doing challenging and impactful work;” “opportunities for career growth within the company;” and “opportunities to learn and develop new skills” (6). Thus, organizational leaders should feel compelled to offer development opportunities to their people to enable better followership.

In our earlier scenario, the team was challenged by its segregation into individual “parts” or areas of expertise, which inhibited their ability to adapt to a changed operating environment and created conflict among team members. The most effective followers balance between their technical competencies and their ability to succeed without strong leadership. This doesn’t mean that, in an organization filled with great followers, there is no need for leadership. Instead, the leader tends to function as a caretaker of progress and performance than the driving force behind team achievement. As Kelly notes, “self-confident followers see colleagues as allies and leaders as equals” (4). Smart leaders recognize the inherent value of this and actively encourage it, rather than feel threatened by it.

As scholars begin to examine followership as its own state, rather than a mere corollary to leadership, gaps in our understanding of the capabilities and characteristics defining it remain large. Because there is a lack of followership competency work, we are taking this year to explore which KSAs followers can, and should, hone to improve their ability to contribute to organizational success. The challenges today’s leaders face in attracting and retaining the workforce necessary to execute their organizational missions are persistent – recognizing that followership is as critical as leadership to organizational success offers a significant competitive advantage in the battle for talent. Sources:

  1. Aristotle. (2007). The Politics (E. Barker, Trans., 1958). In M. Sandel (Ed.), Justice: A Reader (pp. 264-295). Oxford University Press. (Original work ca. 350 B.C.E.)

  2. Cox, R. W., Plagens, G. K., & Sylla, K. (2010). The leadership-followership dynamic: Making the choice to follow. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 5(8), 37-51.

  3. Follett, M. (2011). The basis of authority. In P. Graham (Ed.) Mary Parker Follett – Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s. Washington, DC: Beard Books, 141-162.

  4. Kelley, R. (1988). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 66(6), 142-148. Accessed online at https://hbr.org/1988/11/in-praise-of-followers.

  5. Kelley, R. (1992). The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency.

  6. LinkedIn Learning. (2023). 2023 Workplace Learning Reports: Building the agile future. Retrieved from https://learning.linkedin.com/resources/workplace-learning-report

  7. Malakyan, P. G. (2015). Depersonalizing leadership and followership: The process of leadership and followship. World Journal of Social Science Research, 2(2), 227-250.

  8. Plachy, R. J., & Smunt, T. L. (2022). Rethinking managership, leadership, followership, and partnership. Business Horizons, 65, pp. 401-411

  9. Riggio, R. E. (2020). Why followership? New Directions for Student Leadership, 2020(167), 15-22.


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