I have a problem. My ideas, perceptions, beliefs and indeed my stereotypes of followers in a team environment have been challenged. I entered my Mikesbikes team with a mixture of both leadership and followership experiences, believing this knowledge to be a basis from which I could adjudge another’s skill, motivation or effort. This basis was wrong for as Kelley (1988) claims, leadership does not reflect a person but a role. This course has helped differentiate between the two and taught me the true value of effective followers, without whom, a team cannot succeed. Naturally such epiphany can only come about the hard way- through failure and a realisation that what I assumed being a follower entailed may in fact be wrong. Consequently, in Mikesbikes, I can now recognise was a poor follower. As I search for the silver lining of this experience I feel better knowing that acceptance, as they say, is the first stage to recovery.
As my Mikesbikes experience came to an end, I began the inevitable witch hunt for who or what was to blame for mine and my teams result. Was it the result of a badly planned strategy? A lack of commitment or courage? A lack of technical skill? Or was it perhaps the fault of the team selectors for choosing the teams as they did? For that matter were our very teams fair? These issues may all be to blame to a certain extent and yet at the same time, none of them were insurmountable. Perhaps then, the only overwhelming challenge faced was one I myself created; that being a lack of respect for my own position as a follower. Chaleff (2009) points out that powerful socialisation mechanisms enforce the social hierarchy of the follower, meaning that our perceptions of follower’s are effected by social expectations. When we expect the follower to conform to our stereotype of docility, weakness and failure to excel (Chaleff, 2009) it becomes that we in turn associate these traits with our own work as a follower. Perhaps this happened to me. Perhaps my position as a follower caused me to disregard my own position in the team, believing my role to be unimportant, or, at the very least, less important.
So how then did my preconception’s surrounding followers come about? Kelley (1988, pg. 143) believes “our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and importance of the follower” and following my Mikesbikes experience, I find myself in agreement. Society portrays leadership as the ideal, the money-maker and representative of success; as something that we should all aspire to. Throughout my life therefore, being a leader had always been a goal whether that be to become captain of a sports team or a prefect at school, it was always something I always sought after. Being a leader in turn became a symbol of success, rather than a responsibly to those around me. Contrastingly as I pointed out in my journal in week 3 ‘too many cowboys’, negative connotations are associated with the follower, such as calling them sheep and thereby implying a mindlessness and docility (Harris, 2014a). These preconceptions of followers and leaders amalgamated into an extremely negative perception of what followership entailed to me. However what I have come to recognise and in particular through Kelley’s writings, is the difference between following for the sake of it and performing as an effective follower as part of a team through not following blindly, but with courage and enthusiasm- ironically portraying traits society has come to associate with leaders.
My perceptions of followership may be in part due also to my experiences both as a follower and a leader. Back in high school for instance, I was selected as deputy head of house. I had of course been trying to be selected as head of house rather than deputy and consequently was displeased with the outcome. I remember thinking at the time that as I wasn’t head of house, I therefore was not a leader but a follower. This justification allowed me to sit back a let the head of house carry out the majority of the burden. Why? Because I had labelled myself as a follower and that - naturally - meant I didn’t need to do extra work, didn’t need to help out, and didn’t need show enthusiasm towards my tasks. This allowed me, like many other followers according to Chaleff (2009) to sit back and say ‘well she’s the boss!’ and leave the leader to it. Those jobs I believed, were the sole responsibility of my head of house and not the job of a mere follower’s to do.
My own position as the reluctant follower may also have been contributed to by my experiences as a leader in the past. As captain of the school football team, I observed other team members with less responsibility at times enviously as they acted as they pleased while I performed my various duties. As a result, on the occasions when I was a follower, it became acceptable for me too to fool around and not take things seriously as it was no longer my responsibility to be ‘serious’ as a leader. Transferred into the Mikesbikes scenario, I required my CEO to dictate to me what needed to be done, rather than taking the initiative and doing so myself, as this was how I had perceived followers to act in the past. This micro-management I believed was my right as a follower and gave me the right to shirk responsibility and the right to leave decisions to others as I had witnessed followers doing in the past. I therefore justified my actions as a follower based on my interpretation of the carelessness of other followers rather than understanding that I can actually use the same skills I employ as a leader in situations as a follower. In my week 3 journal I noted that I've both lead teams and been a member of teams in the past and said that “I don't flick a switch and change my skills or values based on my position” (Harris, 2014a) and yet that was exactly what I did in this situation. I stopped portraying the values associated with leadership such as enthusiasm, commitment and high motivation and instead became disinterested and unmotivated. Why? Perhaps because as Kelley (1988, pg. 142) said, that followers “cannot exhibit the qualities of leadership” because “It violates our stereotype”. Between how society has portrayed the follower and my own experiences, I created my own stereotype that didn’t allow me to be both a leader and a follower, rather one or the other. And yet conversely Kelley (1988) points out that leadership and followership does not reflect a person but a role. If that’s true, then perhaps in the future I can become a better follower for this realisation; that the qualities required for both positions are one and the same.
Kelley (2008) in ‘rethinking followership’, questioned whether followership styles can be changed over time and identified 5 different types of followers. This reading revealed my ignorance of followership as I had never before considered that there could actually be more than two types of followers; good followers and bad followers. Kelley (2008) defined the different followership styles as the sheep, the yes-people, the alienated, the pragmatics and star followers. From what I can tell, my actions are best represented by the definition of the alienated follower whom “have a lot of negative energy” (Kelley, 2008, pg. 7) and are often sceptical or cynical about plans of actions and decisions. Upon reflection, these characteristics are not intentional but a result of my perceived position as the follower. Is it not my job to question and probe? To play the role of the devil’s advocate and question decisions? Unwittingly it would appear, the type of followership style I currently possess may be much to my detriment as my actions can alienate me from my team and my individual work. Armed with this knowledge, I reflected upon some interactions with my team members in Mikesbikes and remember times of unnecessary combativeness for instance arguing with my CEO over the difference in production of a few hundred bikes. Would producing these bikes really make a difference? Or was I simply playing out my part as the alienated follower?
Asking myself these types of questions reminded me of a book I read called ‘American icon’ by Bryce Hoffman (2012) where Allan Mulally, the then CEO turned Ford motor company, brought the iconic brand back into profitability essentially by bringing his individual followers together into a single cohesive team. When Mulally arrived, his executives competed with one another and rarely worked together. This I think was due to the senior executives- as followers of Mulally- lack of confidence. Confidence in their positions and confidence in their abilities. This is important according to Kelley (1988, pg. 144) as “Self-confident followers see colleagues as allies and leaders as equals”. Now in my Mikesbikes team we weren’t competing with each other as they were in Ford, but instead I believe we actually felt as though we had no one to compete against. We slowly slipped down the leader board until we found ourselves out of a competitive range. The result? Rather than seeing colleagues as allies and our leader as an equal, both my team mates and I became withdrawn and unwilling to make a wrong decision lest the blame be pointed at us as an individual. Consequently, we turned into a group of alienated individuals rather than a team comprised of Kelley’s star followers. A star follower in my Mikesbikes group for instance would have stepped up and taken over the role of operations when our own operations manager effectively dropped out of the group, rather than play the role of the alienated follower and sit back and let the leader take on the responsibility. To do so would have taken courage, commitment and motivation, all characteristics of a good follower (Kelley, 1988). Yet this would have been a move that conflicted with the stereotype I had built up surrounding my position as a ‘lesser’ member of the team. Such a decision would have been for the best for the group, if not individually. So yes, my workload would have increased and no I may not have gained any extra recognition for acting as a star follower might, but I could not only have helped my Mikesbikes team succeed, but also helped make myself a better follower in group situations in the future.
Kelley (1988) noted that a competent follower masters skills that will be useful to an organisation. First and foremost among those skills is technical ability, what Katz defines as “an understanding of and proficiency in a specific kind of activity, particularly one involving methods, processes, procedures or techniques” (1955, pg. 91). Technical skill therefore must be developed before all else as it is used at the lower levels of an organisation. For instance, in a football team players must first learn how to play the physical game and learn the rules before they can be a coach or lead others. This process is the same in a business environment with workers first learning how the machinery works or the different business processes before they become a manager of others. No surprise therefore that our first task in Mikesbikes was to build up a basic level of technical skill in the single player mode and then further develop these skills in a specific area such as marketing once we were allocated into teams. This basic proficiency level was set at $25 and my group was one of those made up of members who didn’t reach that level. Yet how we were grouped did not seem to bother us as we completed the first two practise rollovers successfully. Having got these good results, I myself as a follower felt my technical skill was adequate and that no further development needed to be done. It then wasn’t until week 8 in my journal, ‘learn to walk before you run’ when I identified my error. By not developing my technical skill in Mikesbikes to an adequate level before anything else, I became unable to be an effective follower (Harris, 2014b). I had become so obsessed with the more complex parts of the Mikesbikes simulation such as market strategy and employing theoretical concepts such as Argyris’ (1991) double-loop learning in the latter stages of the simulation, that I had failed to develop the basic technical skills that individuals need to achieve as a team. After all, there’s no point trying to learn from our mistakes- as double-loop learning endorses- if we don’t even know how we made them.
Interestingly as I review my individual performance as a follower I come back to the question I asked in my journal in week 3; “Do I want to be a leader to make my team better? Or do I simply want to avoid being labelled a follower” (Harris, 2014a). With all the negative connotations I’ve come to associate with the idea of the follower and through my analysis here, I have reasserted the fact that being a follower has not worked for me in the past. That I already knew (even if now I see the value in an effective follower). However does that in turn mean I want to be a leader? I mentioned in my final journal ‘crisis evolution’ how I considered taking on a leadership role despite not being made CEO (Harris, 2014c). Was that because I thought that would be better for the team? Perhaps. Or was it maybe because I didn’t like the thought that I, through how I perceived followers, refused to be led like in the dreaded sheep metaphor? Because I didn’t want to be perceived this way, I offered to become leader not for the good of the team but because I could not stand being labelled a follower. My desire for leadership positions in the past as it turns out may in fact have been more to do with the glamour and attention leaders receive (Kelley, 1988) rather than the actual good I believed I could do. Linked with my questionable desire to be seen as a leader, is the realisation that I will not always be a leader (Kelley, 1988) no matter whether it fits my skillset, personality or skills. It simply doesn’t work that way as there are many more positions as a follower than there are as a leader. This was something I had not fully understood coming into the course- after all I’m studying management to become a manger one day. Taken from this, is the idea that I must develop my skills as a follower regardless of my future aspirations as leader. Also made clear here is that by ignoring effective followership practises in the past, I currently lack the basic skills required to be an effective follower.
From these reflections, I believe my poor effort as a follower in Mikesbikes was in part caused by my lack of technical skill but mainly caused through my misconceptions of what being a follower entailed. I didn’t believe being a follower was important and viewed it as a stepping stone to leadership rather than a role unto itself. In hindsight, this is somewhat ironic really as according to Densten and Gray (2001), work contributed by followers makes up 80% of an organisations success. I began to care more about the idea of the position of the follower, rather than focusing on what the job actually entailed. Consequently, when I found myself in the position of a follower in Mikesbikes, I was unable to differentiate between what I perceived my job or position to be and what it actually was. I failed to realise as Chaleff (2009) put it, that the Follower is not synonymous with subordinate but has its own position in an increasingly egalitarian society. Being a follower doesn’t mean any less of a person but simply reflects the role of someone at a certain time and in this instance, my role was that of the follower rather than the leader. Respect is also a word that comes into mind when I reflect upon my misconceptions of followership. Respect not only for my position as a follower but also respect for my leader or my fellow followers. Without understanding or respecting my fellow team members, how can I expect to empathise or understand what they are trying to do? A lack of respect for my position as a follower may in turn have been an influential factor when analysing my lack of effort to understand the technical aspect of Mikesbikes.
So in the end, what do these findings mean? Well firstly when I next work in a team, I will be able to recognise the need to develop my technical skills before anything else as it is the base upon which all other decisions are made. Secondly, Kelley’s perceptions of followership I hope (and intend) will change the way I act as a follower in the future, acting with confidence, respect and an understanding of what the role truly entails. Kelley, as I mentioned earlier, also questioned whether a person can change what type of follower they are. With this in mind, I believe my challenge in the future is to prove that it is possible to change my followership practises and move myself from acting as an alienated follower to becoming a star performer. This I understand will not happen overnight, but is something I now realise is vitally important to becoming an effective team player in the future.
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Harris, A. (2014b). Learn to walk before you run. Blog- Journal 8. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300
Harris, A. (2014c). Crisis evolution. Blog- Journal 10. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/users/viewmyprofile.action
Hoffman, B. (2012). American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. United States: Crown business.
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