Six ways to better “followership” in academia
After my last blog entry espousing the benefits of “followership” in academia, a few people asked me to explain what followership actually entails. So, here are 6 things you might do to become a better follower:
- Avoid thinking in terms of “good” or “bad” leaders. Rather, think in terms of effective or ineffective leaders. That they are being effective or not suggests that there is some agenda underlying the motivations and actions of said leader. The important thing, therefore, for good followership is to make sure you understand that agenda – you need to find out what they are trying to achieve and why. Ask them. Spend some time understanding what your “leaders” are trying to achieve. They may think that they have communicated this to you already, or they might be assuming you know. So be pro-active in the communication.
- Know when to speak up. Good followers question and challenge their leaders. (Generally best done in private in the first instance.) A good follower will raise points of concern, will question the methods being employed, or will challenge underlying assumptions. A good leader will listen and accommodate, or at least engage in discussion. Bad leaders won’t, and that is why being a whistleblower can sometimes also be evidence of good followership. So, do speak up when the time is right.
- Know when to shut up. Sometimes there is the luxury of having time to go through (2) in great detail. Sometimes the issue is so important that you should invest lots of energy in (2). But there are also times when decisions have to be made quickly, and sometimes things need to change more quickly than you might feel comfortable with. You should still ask the questions that apply in (2), but sometimes you just have to trust your colleagues’ judgement, have your objections recorded in some way, and then be quiet and get on with it.
- Be sympathetic to your leader’s situation. Most of the time the colleague who is now in that “leadership” role – Head of School/Institute/Department – probably didn’t want to do it. Indeed, you would likely have been suspicious if they had volunteered for it. So try to be a little sympathetic to their position (even if they did want it). They probably have pressures on them that are mostly managerial – getting things done on time, meeting centrally-led policy directives, fire-fighting the various in-house problems that always arise – and that probably drains them of the energy and enthusiasm needed to spend time looking after you too. Being an effective manager in academia often leaves no room to be an effective leader. So, try to be patient and understand that their job is not an easy one. That they probably would rather be doing something else. Offer a bit of support now and then. Don’t be too oversensitive to their style of doing things. Don’t expect too much of them. But don’t forget (2).
- Don’t expect your leaders to be mind-readers. They are only human. They are much more likely to help if you can offer a possible solution, rather than merely complaining and expecting them to know what you want done. It is often easier to implement a good solution than it is to find one in the first place. So make things easier for them and do some of that work for them.
- Volunteer. Perhaps above all, offering to help make things work by volunteering makes you a good follower. I’m not suggesting you volunteer for everything. But for those things on which you have a strong opinion, or issues you are passionate about, the best way to influence decisions is to get involved. If you don’t volunteer and others do, and then they come up with a solution you don’t like, don’t complain. See (3) above.
If you think you already do any of the above, then congratulations! You have demonstrated evidence of good leadership. That’s right, I said leadership, since good followership is largely indistinguishable from good leadership. All six actions above are arguably “acts of leadership” because they are about doing the right thing (leadership) rather than doing things right (management). I believe that Academia wrongly fosters the false dichotomy of leader-vs-follower – the idea that you are either one or the other. Some of us may end up in management positions, but that in itself does not constitute being “a leader”.
So consider this: perhaps the most successful teams are composed of people who “know when to lead and when to follow, and can do both” (as suggested by astronaut Piers Sellers in my last blog). Academia is surely no exception.