Sunday, August 30, 2009

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!


jim jackson said...

Right on. Easier said then done.

Anonymous said...


This topic is near to my heart. I've never seen an effective leader who hadn't been an effective follower.

This post should be part of the employee orientation handbook as well as part of the syllabus at every university.

Nice going. And Jim's right: It is easier said than done. If it were otherwise, it wouldn't have such value.

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...


Great list. May I add one more (I know "11" is not a number that is popular)?

All good and great leaders want feedack. Find a way to gracefully let your manager know how they are doing - the good, the bad, the ugly. Hardest thing you'll ever learn to do as a follower, but it will serve you well when you are a leader!

Wally Bock said...

This is a great post on a topic that's hardly ever covered. I love your ten points. I'd add two, but Mary Jo already hit one of them, so here's my one addition to the 11 points.

Learn how your boss likes to be briefed. Orally or in writing? In detail or in summary? On paper or via email? How frequently? At what threshold of "we have a problem?"

Dan McCarthy said...

Jim -
Thanks, and it sure is.

Steve -
Thanks for the suggestion!

Mary Jo -
Oh no, 11 is good! Let's add upward feedback. Thanks.

Wally -
OK, an even dozen. Nice add - thanks!

Career Sherpa said...

Great topic! I also liked the additions made in comments. Though difficult to practice, these softer skills can tend to make or break the success of someone. I hope one day they teach this stuff in school! Great blog!

Marlene Lobberecht said...

Outstanding list! I might add: Be resourceful. Improvise with available resources. There is always more than one way to complete a task. If something is not available, what can be used in place of the original item/tool/contact? Think resourceful.

Elijah Edwards said...


I really liked this topic and found it to be very informative.

Question: in point nine you talk about embracing change, what if an employee is working in an environment where he deals with a new manager every couple of months. Each new manager initiates new policies and change, but the employees know that in a short time they will be dealing with a new manager and new changes. I guess I’m asking how do u be a good follower in that situation

Anonymous said...


I really enjoyed reading this blog post, number 10 really hit home for me. I couldn't agree more with the importance of loving what you do; it's so satisfying to enjoy your work. I am in the early stages of my career and I have already noticed that my love for my job allows me to bring a positive attitude to work each day. Thanks again for your pointers they are very informative.

Dan McCarthy said...

Sherpa -

Marlene -
Thanks, good add. Let's make it 13.

Elijah -
Wow, it would be hard to embrace having a new manager every few months. After a while you could get tempted to just ride it out and wait for the next one. However, you never know if that next manager is going to be "the one", and will need your support to be successful enough to stick around. Good luck!

Brittany -
Good for you! Keep it up, that's a great approach to work and life. People will enjoy being around you.

Anonymous said...

Exactly my thoughts when I replied to a blog post regarding leadership skills:

Hoyt Mann said...

I agree. Here is a comment I left on a blog that asked if everyone was cut out to be a manager. You can see the comment and article here:

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -

karavickrey said...


While reading your top ten I found myself thinking of particular employees for each point. I truly believe that I have some great employees that report to me, and I learn these lessons from them each day.

My favorite step mentioned is #8, “Be an Optimist.” I work for a company that, like most, has seen many changes occur over the past year. The changes have been difficult, but I have always been a perpetual optimist. I believe that this truly made the team’s transition easier, and if possible, more enjoyable.

I agree with Steve, these steps should be shared in orientation.

Matthew Dent said...

Great topic! Never judge a book by its cover, I was expecting a post about what to stay away from to avoid being a follower. In our society being a follower is put in such a negative context when ultimately is exactly what we need to become a great leader. Brilliant! I am couple years into my career and especially agree with being optimistic and bring a positive attitude to the workplace. To often people get caught up in there personal lives or are just punching in/out to there jobs they forget to have fun.

Dan McCarthy said...

Kara, Matthew -
Thanks. Interesting how your both chose optimism. There's been a lot of reserach that shows how optimists are more happy, productive, and healthy. It's also something that can be practiced and learned. Certain behaviors, when practiced, can turn around your attitude. You really can "fake until you feel it" when it comes to optimism.

Nicholas Creswell said...

I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, but think you've missed one vital point: be understood by your boss's boss and your boss's peers. You're not just following your manager, you're following the team of which they are a part. And to be sure of success, that team needs to get what you do and what you're about.

To be understood and to cut through the noise, you need thoughtfully to communicate with that (busy) group. Use appropriate channels to tell them succinctly what you're doing and why, through the appropriate channels. Take time to solicit and listen to feedback from that group.

Add that to everything else you mention, and then you're really set!

Pawel Brodzinski said...

"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."

Agree with the latter. However when it comes to great leaders, well the trick is great leaders can create great followers among average people around. Not all of them but still. That's why they're great.

If you see a leader who proves themselves in a few different environments it can't be just about teams - there must be something about them.

Anonymous said...


Once again I would like to say very well put!!
I especially like the fourth point about admitting your mistakes. It seems, especially in the cooperate world, that admitting your mistakes is one of the hardest things to do for a lot of people. We seem to always have an excuse for something going wrong and we always seem to want to lay the blame on other people for our mistakes.

Just last week I read a great article by Chris Argyris called Teaching Smart People How to Learn and one of the main points was about how “smart people” have a problem taking the blame for their own mistakes. (The smart people in this article are the typical managers or higher ups in corporations that usually have a degree)

According to Chris smart people are the best at laying the blame on someone else for something they have done wrong and half the time they don’t even know they are doing it because they are so good at it. He basically said to help improve on this issue the people doing it have to first realize that they are doing it and then to change what they are doing.

Great Blog!!!

Cecelia Ghezzi said...

It really is pounded into our heads to become great leaders. We strive to be the best, always. How do we get there? Start with becoming great "followers." Every point made in this article is a good one.. oldies but goodies if you will! And very true/great advice. We already know these things are important, and most points just touch on how to maintain professionalism in the workplace. We have all had managers we don't agree with, or co-workers we would like to strangle at times, so this article really brought me back down to earth. Also, a great point was to do something you love for a living. In this economy, I think some people do not have the luxury of doing whatever that is at the moment.. but I remain optimistic(like the article states), that most people eventually will find peace in their professional lives. Thanks for the positive notes.

Kyle Zive said...


Thank you for the reminder that following is just as important as leading. I don't think a lot of managers remember that they too are following someone else (usually). It's too easy to allow yourself to think about the people who report to you and forget about how you should interact with your managers.

Dealing with number 9, how do you embrace change when you don't agree with it and at what point does that start interfering with number 10?

Dan McCarthy said...

Talentwell, Pawel, Nick, Cecelia -
Thanks for adding to the discussion, all great comments!

Kyle -
Good question, it's one I often hear. Great followers (and leaders) will speak up and voice their concerns on those occasions when it really matters. If we don't there can sometimes be disastrous consequences. For example, not enough people spoke up to stop the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. However, the point was to not look for the faults in every change, be open to possibilities, try to understand the reasons why (the big picture, greater good, etc..) trust your management (but not with cult-like blind faith), and support the change.
If the change has the kind of significant impact on your job satisfaction that you’re describing (after giving it a try for long enough to assess that), then it’s time to look for something else to do.

Stuart said...

Just came across your post from a SmartBrief on Leadership link.
I am very pleased with what I am reading here.

I would like to elaborate on the list. In #9 embracing change - In a seminar given by Jay Lewis, entitled "Adventures in Attitudes", he stated an axiom that has stuck with me. "Nobody likes to change, but everybody wants to improve." Goes along with the optimism point. Change for change sake is rearranging the deck chairs. Change for the sake of improvement is motivated. If it isn't motivated, it's just going through motions, for the flavor du jour.

Now for the new point. As a new 2nd Lieutenant in the Army, my first Commanding Officer gave me outstanding career advice. He said, "Your number one priority is to keep your boss's boss off your boss's back." In other words, understand what the priority focus at the next echelon or level of leadership is. Understand a wider picture than just your corner of the org chart. It will help with all of the bullet points above.

Dan McCarthy said...

Stuart -
I love that new point and advice! Thanks.


I think the post itself is a way to view the issue of leadership from the solution point of view rather than problem point of view.

A leader can't be a leader if he/she doesn't have great followers behind him.-a very nice and thought provoking quote...

thank you Dan.