Another Way to Shine in Teamwork: Being a Star Follower
As a Chinese old saying goes: “A soldier who does not want to be a general is not a good soldier”. Some opinions hold that the motto is actually borrowed from Napoléon Bonaparte, one of the greatest military generals in the world, who famously stated “Tout soldat français porte dans sa giberne le bâton de maréchal de France.” (“Every French soldier carries the baton of a marshal of France in his cartridge bag.”) We could see that the idea that people should always aspire to take the leadership in a team always holds true in different cultures. It’s of no surprise at all. Thinking about every famous company, there are thousands of employees who work day and night to make the company stronger, but who will be awarded the credit by the public and memorialized by history? It’s usually only the leader of the company.
I used to be fully guided by that leadership theory. I have practiced my leadership skills through a bunch of leadership experience and I also have enjoyed the accolade for my competency in being a leader. For instance, I had been elected as the class monitor from primary school to university. I became the president of a student club at university. I initiated and led teams to do volunteer teaching in rural areas in China. However, I recently learned through my practicum experience with a Fortune 500 company in the US that being a leader is not the only way to distinguish yourself in teamwork. Actually we could think of another promising direction: Being an exemplary follower.
What is Appreciated Followership?
First, we should be aware that followership is not an antonym of “leadership”, rather, they are supplementary. We could imagine “leadership” as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, it is impossible for the “leader” to fit into the whole picture if it doesn’t match the vacant positions in the puzzle, which are the “followers” (as shown in the picture below). On the other hand, the vacant positions will never be filled if they missed the corresponding “leader” piece. In other words, leaders always need followers support and followers can’t go without leaders. That is to say, leadership and followership are equally indispensable for a team to succeed.
Robert Kelly once gave a very concise and accurate definition to the role of a competent follower which I use as a guideline: A follower is one who pursues a course of action in common with a leader to achieve an organizational goal. Effective followers recognize the authority of the leader and limitations this imposes on their own actions, consider all issues on their merits, make their own decisions, hold their own values, speak their minds and hold themselves accountable for the consequences for their actions.
From the definition, we could clearly see that good followers are obviously not the Sheep People who passively wait for a leader to motivate them and want a leader to do all the thinking for them, and what they would do is just say yes and blindly follow their leaders’ decisions. On the contrary, Star Followers would actively do critical thinking and give the leader’s decisions an independent evaluation with constructive alternatives that will help the leader, the organization, or both.
In my practicum team, I am not the project manager, but I work hard to be an accountable data scientist to generate productive deliverables, contribute constructive ideas with critical thinking, comply with the team’s code of conduct and take all the responsibilities to help our team going on the right track and achieving our project goals together.
Important Traits for Star Followers
After identifying the significance of followership and having a general understanding of what is a good followership, I would like to share four tips that I summarized from my practicum experience of how to become a star follower to shine in teamwork.
1. Enthusiasm and Proactivity
A good follower is self-motived to work hard and achieve goals. He or she treat work with passion, enthusiasm and energy, and is proactive in taking actions. In my practicum work, I will keep the project manager updated with my progress and if my current work is done in advance of schedule, I will figure out with her what action items I can take for the next steps.
2. Intelligence and constant Upskilling
A good follower will keep learning and spare no efforts to hone his or her professional skills. Talents are the most valuable resources of companies, and a good follower should be talented to bring valuable insights to the team. Our practicum project requires a pretty steep learning curve for each team members. Realizing this, I keep upskilling myself by conducting industry and company specific research to gain a deeper and more holistic understanding of our practicum company’s business. I leverage my strength as a fast learner and voraciously do self-learning of the tools and programming languages including Bigquery, Grafana, Python, and machine learning algorithms.
3. Accountability and Courage
A good follower should be reliable and accountable to his or her team members. He or she is dedicated and committed to the work and takes accountabilities to help team succeed, especially when a good follower see problems in team’s work, he or she should have the courage to point out the problems in a timely manner to the person in charge. In my practicum project, for example, once I noticed that some SQL queries didn’t include timestamps, which would make it hard for us to do time-series analysis later. I soon talked to my team to bring their attention to this issue. After that, we are all cautious about always including the timestamp in our queries.
4. Ability to collaborate in a team
A good follower should have a mindset as a team, care about his or her team members and is willing to support each other. In my practicum team, first, I respect every team members. I behave and talk nicely, and avoid being offensive even during a debate. Second, I make sure to finish my own tasks in time so as not to affect the process of the whole team. Third, when others need my support, I always give my full support. For example, during the intensive midterm when everyone was busy with school work, our practicum companies posted some instruction videos to help us get familiar with the tools they use and we were required to view them as soon as possible. So after I watched the video, I shared my notes with my team members to facilitate them absorb the knowledge from the videos.
We could shine in teamwork in different ways, where being a star follower is a valuable path. However, the decision of whether to be a leader or a follower is definitely a personal choice. As Patricia Clason said, “What you need to look at is, how do you want to contribute to the world?” she said. “Not what brings you a title, not what brings you money, not what brings you prestige — what brings you satisfaction.”
 Schindler, James, and James Schindler. Followership : What It Takes to Lead, Business Expert Press, 2014.