The word “followership” is being thrown around more and more lately.

This is a problem because if you really look into what people mean when they use that word or why they’re using it, it reveals some uncomfortable truths. Before we get into that though, here’s a little tip. If you’re a supervisor or consultant and you’re thinking about what professional characteristic you’re looking for, use this scenario to test out the word before you actually use it. Imagine you’re having a professional or even casual conversation with a colleague or friend, and they say to you, “You’re a great ________.” If the word you put in the blank makes the sentence sound at least vaguely insulting, you probably don’t want to apply it to someone else either.

Which brings us to “followership.” Some people, when they first hear the term “followership,” think it means someone who will just do what they’re told. (If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve got a much bigger problem on your hands than a competency issue.) The real meaning of “followership” is something rather different, but equally as problematic. If you really dig into what people mean by “followership,” it sounds an awful lot like leadership. In fact, it sounds precisely like leadership.

Followership generally means someone who is honest, thinks critically and strategically, and most of all is independent. Those are also, as it turns out, the traits of a leader. What’s more, if you’re trying to apply “independent” to someone you call a follower, it begs the question, independent from whom? One assumes they are referring to someone in a leadership role, in which case one should wonder what the hell the purpose of the leader is in this relationship? You would think that a follower by definition would be dependent upon a leader, but apparently you would be wrong.

You see, when people use the word “followership” they really mean “leadership” but they’re afraid to admit it. They think that if they announce that they need people with leadership skills, that will devalue their role. They don’t want a team full of leaders because then everyone would just get in each other’s way. But that’s not the way truly good leaders behave. Good leaders (effective and ethical leaders) define their roles and responsibilities and proceed in a spirit of collaboration and mutual gain.

Sound too idealistic? It isn’t. It seems fanciful because we have wandered too far from what it means to be a truly good leader. It’s not about guarding your territory and ensuring that other people don’t usurp your power. It’s about creating other leaders who may indeed move into your position, and it’s about being happy and grateful if that does happen.

It is common practice today to reserve the competency of leadership for those who are in leadership positions. If you’re not in such a position, then what you should strive for is followership. This is a disastrous practice because it defines people’s knowledge, skills, and abilities by their current roles and that stymies any future growth. Let’s put it this way: if you only start developing leaders when they are in leadership roles, you are too damn late. Leadership development needs to happen as early as possible and applied as broadly as possible.

Your organization should be filled with leaders. This does not diminish any one individual’s value. It vastly increases the value and potential of the organization as a whole. Develop and encourage leadership in everyone. Doing so helps us all rise to a higher level.

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