April 21, 2020

Wartime Followership

Share With Friends

I’m going to talk about followers without talking about Instagram or Twitter.

It’s interesting that if you talk about leadership development, scores of quotes or authors or business journals come to mind, but if you talk about followers, social media comes to mind. Why is it that leadership development gets way more press even though there are far more people following than there are leading on any given day?

I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just a thing. But if I’m going to offer up thoughts in this season on wartime leadership, then I ought to offer thoughts on wartime followership as well.

We are clearly in a season of disruption, survival and pivots. Every business and organization is being rocked to the core. Just as a certain kind of leadership style is needed, a certain kind of followership is also needed.

Leaders need a little ‘more’ during a crisis season. Here are four more things a follower can do to help their leader and their organization right now:

More Trust

Followers are often going to feel out of control in any season because that’s the nature of being a follower. And in a season like the one we’re in now, that sense of being out of control is only heightened.

That’s why the first rule of wartime followership is to re-establish your footing on something solid. In my experience, the most stable foundation in this (or any) season is trust in God. There’s an old proverb I’ve written about before that says “Trust in God but tie up your camel.” I use that proverb to talk about the idea that for people of faith, good planning is needed in addition to faith. But right now, we probably need to remember the flip of the proverb—good planning is needed, yes, but trusting in God is the foundation.

Once that foundation is set, you can give the humans around you more trust as well. Instead of second guessing everyone, determine to trust the motive and intent in your company, leaders, peers and subordinates. Give the benefit of the doubt. Booker T. Washington supposedly said, “Few things help an individual more than…to let him know you trust him.” Your trust actually helps your leaders.

People with trust issues are going to be disadvantaged during this season. With everyone working remotely, we don’t have the relational interaction anymore, so we will drive ourselves crazy if we can’t trust what people say to us. I talked with one CEO recently who was shocked that his employees had self-managed and delivered so well during this work-at-home season. Be a follower who shocks his team in that way.

More Grace

There are certain people in your life who require you to grab an extra scoop of grace and give it to them. There are also certain situations like that, and this is one of them.

Grab a little empathy for a minute, and consider what the leaders around you are walking through. They’re asking questions like, How is this going to affect our sales? Are we going to be able to meet payroll? What about all the new initiatives I told my team about the next 12 months? What about that expansion we were planning? In the midst of that, they’re supposed to also be homeschooling their kids or they miss seeing their grandkids or they have underlying health issues or the non-profit they serve is really up a creek because of all this.

Emotions are frayed and spent. Emails might be sent before they’re proofread.

Summary: This is not the time to do a serious evaluation of your boss (or even your peers). Learn some things about them, yes, but don’t draw huge conclusions about them based on possibly their most stressed season in years.

More Initiative

I talked recently with a client who runs a company worth hundreds of millions. I urged him when this all started to keep a mental marker of his leadership team. Who surprises you in this season? Who suddenly steps up in a big way? Who carries more water than they have to? Who solves things without micromanaging? Who do people start migrating to for help and support?

In crisis, the self-managers rise to the top. People who set their own targets and knock stuff out get noticed. People who aren’t satisfied by getting it done (whatever “it” is) but think it through enough to do it well.

Warren Bennis said, “The manager has his eye on the bottom line, the leader has his eye on the horizon.” Many people are followers in their roles simply because that’s what their role calls for, but in this season there is an opportunity for people to show broader leadership capabilities in ways that substantially benefit the organization.

More Communication

Great followers understand their leaders and communicate with them in effective ways. That’s particularly important in seasons of crisis.

Is your leader an email person, a text person, a zoom person, a Voxer, a daily memo with bulletpoint highlights kind of person? What level of decision do they want and need to be involved in? Don’t just communicate in the form and manner that works for you; take on the communication style of your leader and team when possible.

And perhaps the very best thing you can communicate in a season of crisis is….wait for it…….how can I help? Don’t be offended if the answer is “nothing,” and still ask the question. In a season of crisis, leaders have so many plates spinning, if there’s a plate that they can hand off, that’s a huge win.

There are limits to this, of course. You don’t live in fear of the boss and put your life entirely on hold so that you can help, but the posture of communication and service is good.


More trust, more grace, more initiative and more communication. Rinse and repeat. That’s the key to wartime followership.

Some thirty years ago, Robert Kelley wrote a book and then an article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “In Praise of Followers.” He includes this line:

“People who are effective in the follower role have the vision to see both the forest and the trees, the social capacity to work well with others, the strength of character to flourish without heroic status, the moral and psychological balance to pursue personal and corporate goals at no cost to either, and, above all, the desire to participate in a team effort for the accomplishment of some greater common purpose.”

Robert Kelley // In Praise of Followers

Followers are no anonymous droids, interchangeable and controlled at will if only the right leader emerges. No, followers are organizational shapers and shifters, and perhaps never more so than in a crisis season. Follow well.

Share With Friends