As leaders we spend a lot of time thinking about how our team or business could be better. We think about capabilities on our team, the growth of our business, our talent, our culture, and our engagement level, or at least I hope we do.
But we also need to make sure that we are doing the things we need to as a leader so that we are followable. I heard a quote years ago that said “if you think you are leading, but no one is following you, you are really just taking a walk.” I don’t remember who said it, but it stuck with me.
We can make it easier, or more difficult for others to connect with us, trust us, believe in us, and follow us. Our responsibility as a leader is to be one that people can follow without climbing over unnecessary obstacles, taking significant risks, or incurring additional, unnecessary stress.
Here are some ways that we can be more followable as a leader, and make sure we aren’t just out for a stroll by ourselves when we think we are leading.
1. Take the fear out.
Our role likely already causes others some degree of risk, fear, or stress. Just the nature of being part of a hierarchy in a business creates that. When someone above me on the org chart has some level of control over my pay, my promotion, my job stress, or my success, it can come with some intimidation. We have a lot of psychological size as a leader, and we need to be aware of that and remove fear wherever we can. If we use intimidation, constant urgency, and other engagement killers as a leader we will be very hard to follow, and people will look for ways to stop following us. That may be leaving our team, it might be disengaging, it might just be commiserating with others about how difficult we are to work for, but it will happen.
2. Extract feedback, don’t just ask for it.
Telling people to give you feedback is generally not very effective. There’s a lot of risk in giving the boss feedback if it’s not some set of glowing remarks. I have personally watched people tell their boss what a smart, competent, effective leader they were and then tell others how terrible they REALLY were. People sugar-coat, twist, soften, edit, and otherwise adjust messages that are delivered to people who they report to because making the boss mad at you is generally considered a career limiting move. Ask specific questions like, “what could I have done better to support your efforts on this project,” or “give me three things that you sometimes wish I would do differently.” It’s our job to get the feedback that makes us better, not their job to give it to us.
3. Invest in others.
Trust happens when people believe you have their best interests at heart. That’s impossible for people to believe if you have never spent any time learning about their best interests. Invest time in others, learn about their goals, understand their challenges, wants, passions and needs. It may feel like a big chore if you have a lot of people on your team or don’t normally engage with people that way but scheduling some time with people each month to learn about them, and nothing more, can completely change how willing others are to trust and follow you. It will also make you a far better coach for others when you understand what they want to achieve.
4. Be consistent.
If people don’t know what to expect from you, fear and stress are automatically present. If you tend to be impulsive, moody, or unpredictable, people will find it difficult to follow you because your direction changes so often. If you have a steady presence that people don’t have to guess about, it will make working with you much less stressful. I once knew an executive who was so unpredictable that people checked with his assistant to see what kind of mood he was in before they went into his office. Imagine the additional thinking and preparation that people wasted time on before having a simple discussion with him. Don’t make your team guess about your demeanor. Make life comfortable for them and let them focus on the quality of their work more than the mood of their boss.
5. Let them in
People more readily follow leaders that they can connect with. Take time now and then to let people know you are human, fallible, and real. Share stories of your life outside of work, your family or friends, your weekend, your passions, your challenges. Ever try to believe in someone you felt like you didn’t know or understand well? It’s a lot of extra work. Leaders often get trapped in that imposter syndrome thinking where they always have to appear correct, secure, confident and comfortable, and while no one wants a frail leader, people do need to feel that leaders are human and genuine to connect with them. When we know people are facing the same challenges as us, we can align with them much more easily than if they are on some pedestal and gifted with superior knowledge or capability. And we all know that leaders aren't that anyway. They are regular people who are trying to help others around them achieve greater success, that’s all.
Leaders who are followable can take people farther, build stronger, more engaged teams and help businesses build a better future. We simply need to make being on our team easy and comfortable so that people are focused on what they do next and how they get better, not the stress and uncertainty their boss is causing. If people struggle to follow you, you will always struggle to lead, but you get to make choices that help others engage with you, connect to you and accomplish more because of you. That’s great leadership.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments area below.