Anyone who’s ever Googled the term ‘leadership’ knows there are as many differing definitions as there are drops of water in the ocean. There are also a plethora of labels indicating an individual’s leadership style—from the laissez-faire, to the transformational, and even, the enterprising.

Much has been written about the benefits of effective leadership. From the tangible (e.g. increased profitability, enhanced employee engagement, revenue growth) to the intangible (e.g. unlocking people’s potential). But ask any leader why their role is so challenging, and the answer – “because we deal with different people” – rises to the top. After all, it’s one of life’s brutal facts that organisations are made up of people.

Much has also been written of organisations; commonly defining them as “a group of people who work together in an organised way for a shared purpose”. Interestingly, the term ‘organisation’ derives from the Greek, “organon”, meaning ‘organ’.

Take this moment to consider if the group of people you lead, or simply work with, are aligned in their purpose and goals. I ask you to do this purposefully because I’ve observed that:

  • Few organisations invest in developing a leader’s soft skills, and
  • Influencing people to work together organically it is not just the responsibility of the leader.

Developing soft skills

Today’s leaders are expected to drive the success of their organisation, regardless of how that success is defined (ie. cultural, financial or reputational markers). Amongst these expectations and others, leaders are also required to inspire, support, challenge, influence, actively care, collaborate, recognise and reward.

However, organisations often fail to set their leaders up for success. For example:

Over the last two years I have been working with large organisation operating in the heavy machinery industry. Having run a diagnostic assessment, it was clear that one of their biggest opportunities was to develop the capability of their leaders. In this particular organisation, like so many others, leaders are promoted as both reward and recognition of their technical competency (e.g. engineer, diesel mechanic, fitter and turner) rather than for their people skills or leadership qualities.

When this anomaly was raised, along with the consequences to the organisation’s culture, management responded that they already had a lot of training in place for leaders! Having reviewed their training plan for leaders, the gap was immediately evident – learning opportunities were solely focused on developing operational skills (i.e. policies, procedures, systems, practices or performance management). Nothing had been provisioned to develop leaders’ skills in managing or working with people!

Leaders can and do help to shape organisations. However, it seems unfair that organisations rely on leaders to drive change if they are taught only the skills required to be followers, enforcers even, of the status quo.

Leading by example

For all that has been written of a leaders’ responsibility in encouraging collaboration, less has been said of effective and conscious followership (i.e. a person’s willingness to unlock their discretionary effort). Being a follower does not mean you accept a submissive role. Rather, it requires the individual to be enthusiastic, intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant1.

Those who appreciate the critical role followers play in achieving success are more likely to support leaders. Effective followers actively volunteer for tasks and help to accomplish team goals. They:

  • willingly accept assignments
  • exhibit loyalty to the group
  • offer suggestions for improvement
  • voice opinions but support the group’s decision
  • maintain a positive attitude (even in confusing or trying times), and
  • working effectively as a team member2.

To help you not only identify followers and grow your followership, but also become an effective and conscious follower yourself, I’ve listed a few tips below:

  • Be willing to manage the balance between your self-interest, that of your team and your organisation.
  • Challenge yourself by putting your hand up for new projects. Check in with your leader on what the best way for you to contribute in this space could look like.
  • Show initiative. Don’t hold back on sharing your ideas and knowledge.
  • Invite a different perspective by challenging your leader and the group’s thinking, respectfully.
  • Know when to lead with your knowledge, skills and experiences and when to step back and listen.
  • Role model. Rather than criticise, demonstrate the attitudes and the behaviours you want to see more of.
  • Reflect, learn from your own your mistakes and share your learnings to encourage this practice in others.
  • Embrace conflict when it’s healthy to do so. Collaboration is a messy process.

Depending on how they wish to be perceived, leaders are viewed by employees as either figures of authority or inspirational role models. In fact, renowned author, Jim Collins, identifies three types of leaders in his book, Good to Great. These leaders are defined by the legacy that they leave:

  1. The ‘thank goodness this person has gone leader’
  2. The ‘what are we going to do without this person leader’, and
  3. The ‘I’m better off for knowing this person leader’.

I’m intrigued by the notion that followers can actually lead themselves. So much so that I’ll continue to explore this train of thought in future blogs. In the meantime, the question I leave you to ponder is: “Even if you are a leader, what type of follower are you?”


  1. Riggio, R. E., Chaleff I., & Blumen-Lipman, J. (2008). The art of followership: How great followers create great leaders and organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  2. Holden Leadership Centre at the University of Oregon