The views and opinions expressed are those of the author personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
Leader the Follow (Part 1)
I will never forget how I earned my shellback certificate. Only a few people know what that is. If you have one, you probably remember the experience like I do. It is unforgettable.
I served six years in the US Navy after high school. While in the Navy, most sailors are assigned duty to serve on a ship and go out to sea. A large percentage of deployments end up crossing the equator, and with that crossing comes a very honored tradition and ceremony where a lowly pollywog transforms into an honored shellback.
During this ceremony, the pollywogs (those who have never crossed the equator) are “abused” by the shellbacks (those who have already crossed the equator) through a series of events and scenarios before entering the royal court of King Neptune. There was no real abuse, but there were fire hoses, pushups, haircuts, and lots of crawling around on a very rough deck with your clothes on inside out.
The scenario I remember the most — and where I want to set the stage for this article — was where we crawled through chutes of rotting garbage. This was a great picture of leadership and following. Three people were going through the chute, a leader and two followers. The leader was the only one who could see the exit, but he could not get there unless the followers were “hooked” to him by grabbing onto the bell bottoms of the dungaree jeans we wore on the ship.
Often there was vomiting. Certainly there was hesitation, doubt, and extreme overload to the smelling senses. It was challenging, but with the help of everyone involved, we made it through and eventually got to rub our faces in the greasy belly of King Neptune and claim our shellback card.
The leader can see the end. They can see where the group is going. But most of the time, the leader cannot get there by themselves. The follower is the key. Instead of focusing on the leader’s responsibility to create an environment where followers can thrive, I want to focus on the follower and try to answer some key questions:
- What makes a good follower?
- Who is a follower?
- Who will a follower follow?
Certainly there are more followers in this world than there are leaders. If not, there would be no advancement in anything, much less technology. You know the saying — too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
If the follower is such a key to success, why is it that there are far fewer books written about followers compared to those written about leaders? Followers are mentioned in the leadership books, but from the perspective of leadership. Maybe many in the workforce are not satisfied with being a follower and do not want to acknowledge their responsibility in being a good follower. Let’s explore these questions and see what we can discover about good followers that really make them leaders.
What Makes A Good Follower?
There is a great YouTube video that speaks to the significance of the follower. In this video, it is the first few followers that are the most important.
The video helps answer the question of who a good follower is. A good follower is one who is willing to take a risk. The leader may be way off base and be going down a road that leads to failure. A follower assumes risk in whatever endeavor they are on. Much like an entrepreneur, with the increase in risk comes a potential increase in reward.
Lower risk, lower reward. If you have a job with a large hospital system, you are a follower in a relatively low-risk situation. But monetarily speaking, your reward is capped. One of the things I love most about healthcare is that most of us are in this industry because of our compassion for others who may be sick. In this case the emotional reward is great.
A good follower also has vision. Good followers ensure they are able to see what they are marching towards. Two IT people are viewing server log files. One is upset because they feel like they should be much farther in their career than just browsing log files. The other is diligent and disciplined in their review, understanding that if they can find something at this level, they may be able to prevent an unplanned system outage and interruption to critical information flow to clinicians.
Which follower would you rather work with? Obvious, isn’t it. The follower with vision and understanding will ultimately help the company produce quality products and services.
Finally, a good follower is loyal. This is not to say that a good follower may not change jobs. Loyalty runs much deeper than who your employer or boss is. A good follower is loyal to the path they are on in life. They try to align themselves with employers who have a similar vision and who can best help them achieve their personal goals. A leader is not the only one who understands the idea of “co-missioning.”
Covey covered this in his book The 8th Habit. He discusses this idea of aligning your personal mission with the mission of the organization. To me, this is one of the biggest resourcing challenges in healthcare IT, specifically regarding the technical roles. If an individual is passionate about server technology and is fascinated with managing a storage area network, they will be loyal to that versus loyalty to that is specific to healthcare. Technical aptitude is needed in almost every business sector, making it more difficult to keep good technical people in healthcare.
Good followers are loyal to their passion. Good leaders recognize this and work with good followers to best align their work to their passion. This fosters loyalty — and as a result, longevity — in the workplace.
Who Is A Follower?
The short answer to this is “everyone.” I recognize that I am a leader at work. As the CIO, I lead a group of people as we march down the road of improving healthcare delivery through information technology. However, my title is CIO and not CEO, so I need to be a good follower to advance the agenda of the organization.
The CEO is a great leader, but he too is a follower, as he reports to the chairman of the board of directors. The chairman is a follower in a sense as well, because he represents the community we serve. At the end of the day and in every industry, there are the people — community, customers, consumers, and families.
Without losing my focus on followers, I want to make a quick leadership point here. It is critical for a leader to be more that just be a good follower. They need to be a great follower. The eyes of the team are watching. As the leader goes, so goes the team. This is not an opinion, it is a principle.
If leaders are followers — and indeed they are — then they need to set the bar on how to follow. They need to take good risks and show others how to do that. They need to have vision and be able to communicate that vision and help others to see. Finally, they need to be loyal and display loyalty in a way that makes other followers want to follow.
Who Will A Follower Follow?
This leads us to the final question. Who will a follower follow?
I will start by speaking for myself here. I will not follow someone I cannot trust. Trust is such a huge issue for me, probably because I have both broken trust and had my trust broken and have seen the resulting relational devastation first hand. A leader can have a great vision with low risk in an environment that seems to foster loyalty, innovation, and creativity, but unless I trust them, I will not join them.
That is part of why changing jobs is so risky. You never really know what you are going to get until you spend time in that role, and by that time, it is normally too late. I’ll be honest — one of the reasons I have taken to writing is to put myself out there so potential employers and employees can get an idea of who I am and what is important to me. This starts to build trust even before we meet. Naturally there will still be skepticism, but the relationship can start off with a foundation — albeit a small one — to build trust.
Behind trust, there are many qualities a leader must have for me to follow them in a great way. They must have integrity, must be honest, must have a level of transparency, and must foster unity.
What is more important to me, however, is not who I will follow, but who you would follow. I would like to make this article interactive. I would like to hear from you and find out who you would be willing to follow. What type of person would you follow into battle? Please respond via e-mail, LinkedIn, or Twitter and let me know. I will include this in the next post of Collective Action on HIStalk. Include your name if you like, but I would ask you at a bare minimum to include your role so we can have context around your response.
If a good follower knows how to calculate risk and has vision and loyalty, why are they only considered followers and not leaders? Why is there stigma with being called a follower, a.k.a. a member of the team? I will elaborate on this in the next segment once I get your answers to what kind of leader would you follow.
But I believe what keeps a follower a follower and not a leader ties back to their sense of identity. If you see yourself as just a follower, then whether or not you have the qualities of a leader, you will never lead. If you can see yourself as a leader, then whether or not you have fully developed the qualities of a leader, you still can lead and learn along the way.
Of course there are some who do not have an accurate picture of themselves. That is when a mentor or someone close can help them point out their strengths and weaknesses. More to come on this in the next segment, but your sense of identity it is a crucial concept that deserves specific attention because of the significant impact it has on every individual. Even if you remain a follower for the remainder of your career, you can lead strongly by consistently displaying the characteristics associated with being a good follower.
Bill Rieger is chief information officer at Flagler Hospital of St. Augustine, FL.