10 Ways to be a Great Follower

A long time ago, when I was conducting one of my first management training classes, a crusty old general foreman snarled at me, “Hey kid, maybe you should be teaching my employees how to be better employees, instead of wasting my time”.

Since then, I’ve spent the last 20 + years trying to develop great leaders. There are thousands of books, articles, and courses on how to be better leaders. Yet, after all of this effort, we still seem to have a shortage of leaders and a lot of employees sure seem dissatisfied with their bosses. Sometimes it feels like we’re just spitting in the wind.

Well, after all these years, I’m thinking old crusty may have been on to something there. Let’s face it; even the most powerful leaders have to answer to someone; so at some point, we all have to be followers. And great leaders can’t be great unless they have great followers. Heck, a team of great followers can even make the most average of managers a great leader.

So how about if I stop telling everyone they should be a leader and instead practice what it takes to be a great follower? Here are some things I love to see from my own employees, and have tried to practice with my managers.

1. Keep your manager informed.
Leaders throughout history have made bad decisions based on a lack of information or bad information. Great employees keep their managers abreast of key projects, even if they don’t ask. A manager can’t recognize and reward if they don’t know what their employees are doing. Managers also hate finding out about bad news from someone else. If something happens, like a dissatisfied client, give your manager a heads-up there may be trouble coming their way.

2. Always support your manager behind their backs.
That also means don’t criticize your manager behind their backs. For one thing, it’s unprofessional. It’s also a safe assumption that whatever you say, good or bad, will get back to them.

3. Be good. Damn good.
When an employee consistently delivers extraordinary results, most managers end up giving them more trust and latitude. And when a manager doesn’t have to waste their time cleaning up after mistakes or following up, they have more time to spend on vision, strategy, recognition, resource allocation, and other good things that benefit the entire team. Do what you say you’re going to do and do it well.

4. Admit your mistakes.
When you make a mistake, admit it. Be accountable; don’t make excuses, don’t point fingers, and don’t act like a victim. Tell your manager what happened, what you’re doing to fix it, and what you’ve learned so that it won’t happen again.

5. Be a great peer.
See post, “Would Your Peers Vote for You”. Be a team player; be an advocate for them behind their backs. Managers can’t stand back-stabbers, and they can sniff it out no matter how subtle you think you’re being.

6. Don’t bring problems to your manager, bring solutions.
OK, it’s a tired cliché, but it’s true. Don’t delegate upwards.

7. Prioritize your own work.
Great followers never have to ask their managers to help prioritize their work for them. New employees might need to do this – or average employees – but not the great ones. They always seem to know what’s important and urgent, and what can wait.

8. Be an optimist.
Everyone loves being around optimists – the positive attitude and energy is contagious. When you’re the person who always sees the glass as half-empty, you end up being a real buzz-kill for everyone around you.

9. Embrace change.
Everybody says the love change – as long as the change is their idea. A great follower can see the possibilities in someone else’s idea. Be the early adopter; don’t be the laggard.

10. Love what you do – or do something else.
If you don’t like what you do, it’ll show up in your work and attitude. You’re not doing yourself, your manager, or your co-workers any favors by hanging on to what you consider to be a lousy job. Life’s too short – find something that you can be passionate about.

Note: Thanks to reader Angie Chaplin for the topic idea, winner of a free book!