Today’s blog post is by Niall White

Want more great leaders? Be a great follower.

I’m convinced there are many potentially great leaders in the world. Of these potential leaders, I sometimes wonder if many are simply afraid to step forward. This fear could come from many different sources; fear of failure, fear of rejection, lack of confidence, or even a lack of understanding, to name a few. It is also possible that this fear comes from negative experiences or deeply personal mental illness. It may be impossible to know every reason why someone is reluctant to step forward as a leader, but it is possible to help them.

Being a “follower” can sometimes come with a negative connotation, but some of the great leaders I’ve known were also great followers. Rather than thinking of a follower only as someone that simply goes through the motions, doing whatever they are told with little proactivity, I invite you to consider an alternative viewpoint: A follower can be someone that not only makes way for someone else to lead, but provides positive reinforcement, kind and productive criticism, and looks for their own leadership opportunities that support the leader (e.g., volunteering to help or pursuing a recommendation). In short; friendly following. Now, it’s probably worth mentioning that, just like the phrase “yes, and”, you don’t need to follow, endorse, or agree with something you aren’t comfortable with.

Can you imagine a world where people of all backgrounds and experiences, strengths, and limitations, felt empowered to lead in whatever capacity they could? And can you imagine if they not only felt empowered to lead, but believed that their message would be received by people that were open to new ideas, willing to help, and helpful enough to provide courteous feedback? Dare I say, friendly followers? I imagine that world would have a lot less fear. I’ve seen teams, families, and organizations that operate this way, and I can say that these are the teams, families, and organizations that I’ve felt the most safety and satisfaction being associated with.

Think about the friendly followers around you. I can think of many at here at MITRE. I can think of many in the ITK community! Volunteering to co-facilitate a workshop with someone, giving someone the benefit of the doubt when they are slow to respond to an inquiry, assuming good intent when a statement is made, and enabling an environment where others feel safe, are all examples of friendly following.

I really do believe that there are many incredible people all around us that are reluctant to step forward, stand in the limelight, or even be noticed. How might we be a source of strength and encouragement for these potential leaders? How might we be friendly followers so that others might lead?

cover image by Doug Coldwell