By Elizabeth Wayman, research staff, Xerox Research Center Webster
A colleague of mine recently observed if everyone’s goal is to be a leader, there are going to be an awful lot of disappointed people in the world. I think we need to change the idea that being a follower means that we are docile, weak, and ineffective. As Edith Wharton once wrote: “there are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
Leaders are not the only ones who can use their knowledge, skills, and ability to shape an organization. Followers also can lend valuable perspective. The world is becoming so complex that one person, the leader, cannot begin to comprehend all the perspectives needed to make informed decisions.
As a researcher at Xerox Research Center Webster, I like to explore ideas that could improve how businesses or organizations operate, but I got interested in the idea of followership quite by accident. A friend recommended a book, and just as I had gotten really engrossed in it, I received an email requesting a call for proposals for a conference sponsored by the RIT Institute for Leadership. I thought followership was an interesting juxtaposition to leadership, so I delved into the subject more and submitted a proposal to speak on the topic.
Information about leadership – in the form of conferences, workshops, books, videos, coaches – is plentiful but very little exists on followership. That’s quite ironic as there are so many more followers than leaders on the globe! Material on followership began appearing in the late 1990s. My favorite book, so far, (of the say, five, out there!) is “The Courageous Follower” by Ira Chaleff (the book my friend recommended). It gives some very specific examples of what a follower could say or do to make his or her voice heard in an organization. As I read I thought “hey, I think I can do this.” Maybe I would know what to say or do if a certain situation arose. It made me realize I can have more of an impact than I used to think.