Last month I discussed the growing belief in the military and the private sector that developing training, incentives and a culture for effective followership is as important — or perhaps more so — than the $50 billion dollar a year leadership development industry.
Before we get specific about what makes a powerful follower, it’s clear from some reader comments to my previous article that “powerful follower” remains an oxymoron to some. So let me be clear: I’m not talking about sheep, lemmings, “yes people” or flotsam. I’m not talking about followers, as some readers described, who “fetch the boss coffee and tell him how marvelous his ideas are so they can get promoted” or who are “content to sit idle and suck at the tit.”
The notion that anyone who doesn’t aspire to a command or leadership position is a sycophant or content to sit idle is both sophomoric and insulting. Check out the ranks of the Medal of Honor Recipients. Many of them were enlisted soldiers who did not aspire to higher rank. But they certainly understood “fierce followership”.
I don’t mean to get preachy, but John the Baptist was a follower and he certainly didn’t sit idle nor brown-nose Jesus. From the beginning of his ministry, he asserted he was not the messiah. He told his followers he was not worthy to carry the sandals of the one to come. (Matthew 3:11) He spoke about being thrilled that Jesus was receiving more followers than he. He culminated his followership by saying, “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30). John’s great aspiration was to be a fierce follower of Jesus.
“Servant leadership” began as an oxymoron but we’ve come to understand, praise and practice it.
The times now beckon the same treatment for the term “fierce followership.”
What is Fierce Followership?
One definition of “fierce” is “Showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity” It’s synonymous with descriptors like “intense,” “blazing,” “fervent,” and “spirited.”
Author Susan Scott embraced this concept of fierce in her New York Times best seller, Fierce Leadership — A Bold Alternative to the Worst "Best" Practices of Business Today. Robert Kelley, a prominent social scientist in followership studies, focuses on two behavioral traits, focuses on two behavioral traits of such followers: critical thinking and participation.
Participation envisions someone actively and comprehensively engaged — anticipating and planning accordingly.
• Courageously dissenting when necessary
• Sharing credit
• Admitting mistakes
• Exercising superior judgment
• A skills master
Ira Chaleff’s “courageous” follower is anything but a “yes man.” In his book The Courageous Follower — Standing Up To & For Our Leaders, Chaleff discusses just how much courage it takes to be an effective follower. Courageous followers possess:
• The courage to assume responsibility
• The courage to serve
• The courage to challenge
• The courage to participate in transformation
• The courage to take moral action
• The courage to speak to and for the brass and the boots
Colin Powell gave a spot on description of what I term a “fierce follower.” In his book American Generalship: Character is Everything: The Art of Command, Edgar Puryear asked Secretary of State Powell why he thought he was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Powell said: “Beats me. I worked very hard. I was very loyal to people who appointed me, people who were under me, and my associates. I developed a reputation as somebody you could trust. I would give you my very, very best. I would always try to do what I thought was right and I let the chips fall where they might. …It didn’t really make a difference whether I made general in terms of my self-respect and self-esteem. I just loved being in the army.”