Situation #1: Last semester I asked students at a workshop to list the characteristics of good leaders and good followers. Among other things, they said that strong leaders “connect to people” and communicate well. They had a more difficult time with the word “follower.” Followers were described by some participants as timid, lazy, indifferent, and passive. One student said that a more descriptive word for “follower” would be “free-loader.” I followed up by asking what we call a person who is neither leading nor free-loading, a person who is actively contributing to a group. “Supporter?” one person offered. They struggled to come up with anything else.
Situation #2: Over the course of the fall semester our professional staff visited meetings of about a dozen of our student organizations. Our goal was simply to observe and to jot down our observations. One interesting pattern: In many groups the officers were doing most if not all of the work. We had a sense that the officers (and, in particular, the presidents) assumed that this is what leaders do–everything. The primary role of members, it seemed, was to attend meetings. Faculty have reported similar observations about students working in groups in their classes–a student (or two) takes charge and does most of the work.
These situations have led our staff to consider ways to incorporate followership development into our leadership-development initiatives. Certainly leaders cannot lead well without strong teams, and yet we don’t talk much about the skills, attitudes, and other personal traits of strong contributors. Being a great group member isn’t prestigious; he/she isn’t usually the center of attention. However, the best group members often are (or will become) the best leaders. They’re dependable, motivated, and committed. They learn to communicate well.
To get the ball rolling, this spring we (Office of Student Life staff) are hosting a discussion of the book Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Barbara Kellerman, Harvard Business Press, 2008). Interesting book! Kellerman also addresses some of her ideas about followership.
What are you observing in terms of followership on your campuses? Have you looked at followership as an element of your leadership programming? If so, what’s working (or not)? A guest speaker at our annual leadership conference told student organization leaders that it’s okay to kick out inactive members. Similarly, a faculty member shared that she encourages group project teams to “fire” slackers. What do you think about these practices? Maximizing group effectiveness–leading and following–is the goal. How can we best achieve it?
Lisa Tetzloff is director of student life at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay