hen I talk about following, I’m not talking about clicking follow on Twitter or on Facebook. I’m specifically talking about the people behind the leaders—who make or break those leaders.
Too many people malign followers, as if being one is somehow an inherently bad thing. But the truth is, there isn’t anyone among us who isn’t a follower, in some respect, at some point in their lives. Without exception.
All of us fill roles in our families (kids follow parents, older siblings often lead younger ones, et cetra), in our social circles (I promise you that someone around you is a stronger leader than you, and you tend to follow them), in the Church (we follow pastors, for example), and in many other settings.
No leader has ever impacted the world without having good followers providing critically needed support. The old adage that behind every good man is a great woman seems apropos here suddenly. But think about it, every President, Prime Minister, King or Queen, every successful religious figure, athlete, or celebrity—these people are who they are and they reach the levels they do because they’re supported by others.
Contrary to popular wisdom, being a good follower doesn’t make you a sheep, well unless you’re actually a bona fide Ovis aries (hint: that’s the Latin name of sheep). Or, I suppose, if you follow blindly even in the face of compelling evidence that you should behave contrary to the crowd. You tend to hear people like that called “Sheeple”, which is a somewhat derogatory portmanteau. But being a good follower speaks a lot about the character of the person following.
Being a good follower is also important to becoming a better leader; every solider starts as a follower, for example. It doesn’t matter if that person is enlisted or commissioned—you follow before you lead.
“Every leader has to start as a follower.” —James L. Clark
So here are five characteristic traits that will make you a good follower, and as a consequence, a much better leader:
1. They’re Always Enthusiastic.
I love people like this. You know the type, they nearly always come to work with a smile on their face—and when they don’t, we quickly wonder what’s wrong. A good follower, like a good leader, chooses to be a cheerful and upbeat person. Even when things are bugging them, you would hardly ever know it. They avoid letting personal issues impact others around them, and as a natural result, people want to be in their presence. Enthusiasm is contagious.
2. They Set the Bar High.
Good followers model good behavior. They set the bar high and walk the walk, not just talk the talk. It doesn’t matter if it’s in their business life or personal life—they always set the standard for others to follow. They constantly build strong relationships, exhibit self-discipline in the face of adversity, and they treat others the way they’d want to be treated. Even though they’re followers, they still lead by example. This is called non-positional leadership—and it’s a very powerful thing.
3. They Take the Initiative.
Good followers don’t wait to be instructed—they just do it. They take the time to learn their job and that of others around them, and they do what’s expected of them without having to be told. They’re just naturally helpful and go out of the way to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.
4. They’re Always Learning.
Good followers have an insatiable appetite for improving their knowledge, education, and abilities. They don’t settle for a basic understanding of things or rest on their laurels. Good followers take classes, listen to educational programs when they exercise, they read books, go to seminars, and seek out mentors. Like leaders, they’re always looking to improve.
5. They Always Serve Others
Mahatma Gandhi said, “If you want to find yourself, lose yourself in the service of others.” I love that quote. I live that quote. All good followers do, and so do all good leaders. Good followers serve their organizations, employers, their families, and others. Good followers are, in my view, the best Servant Leaders.
The characteristics are the bedrock or foundation of good leadership, so it’s not surprising that if you can be a good follower—It’ll make you a much better leader.