To be selected for leadership, you must demonstrate that you are also a good follower. This is a topic that rarely receives attention when we discuss professional development in nursing. We hear a great deal about developing our leadership abilities, but little about follower-ship. Great leadership is only possible when the leader surrounds him or herself with followers who will be inspired to do great work. I remember once interviewing a nurse for a staff nurse position and I asked her about her leadership goals. She responded that she really was not interested in seeking any higher level of leadership, but she told me that she was a great follower. As I worked with her over a number of years, I found that to be very true and what a remarkable gift it was. Some key traits of good followers include the following:
1. Frequent Communication with the Leader
Leaders count on followers who will be self-starters in their work but who keep them informed about what they are doing, and any challenges they may be experiencing. Leaders need good communication from their followers to help them make the right decisions. Most leaders have preferred methods of communication such as a weekly briefing, email, frequent huddles or text messages. Find out what the leader’s preferred communication style is and use it. You will also want to know if there are specific types of things that the leader does want to be informed about – ex. medication errors, family complaints, supply issues, areas of staff dissatisfaction. Health Care is a 24/7 business so learn the types of issues that a leader may want to be called about in their non-work hours. Leaders become frustrated when they hear that a problem has gone on for weeks and they were never informed about it.
Even great leaders can be undermined by followers who criticize decisions, are passive-aggressive, look to find fault or use their influence to erode the support of others. Good followers need to be trustworthy and transparent in their actions. There may be times in your career when you work for a leader that does not earn your trust but this should not change how you behave.
3. Accountability for Commitments
I once asked a nurse ,who has had remarkable achievements in his career, about the secrets to his success. He told me that the foundation of his success was that he always follows through on what he had committed to do. So few people do, he observed, that it will always make you stand out. Leaders depend on followers who will follow through on their assignments and can be counted on to do their work. When nurse leaders look at their staff to identify their emerging leaders, this is a key trait that is considered.
4. Support for Decisions Made
The health care environment today is in a state of constant change. Even nurse leaders at the most senior level of the organization find themselves making decisions that may impact the work of staff in ways that will be perceived negatively. There is often no choice but to make these tough decisions and policy changes. Followers can and should share their concerns with leaders. Once a final decision is made, it needs to be supported. Don’t blame the leader for unpopular organizational decisions that they may have no control over.
5. Encouragement of Leadership Efforts
It is often said that it is lonely at the top, and many nurse leaders would agree with this assessment. Good followers recognize this and find ways to encourage the leader on their journey. There is nothing that leaders value more than authentic praise from those that they lead.
In her work on follower-ship, Barbara Kellerman identifies five types of followers based on their level of commitment: Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists and Diehards. She contends that the ideal follower is the Activist. The activist is passionate about their leader and/or organizations and demonstrates that enthusiasm. They are energetic, eager and engaged. It is from this group that future leaders emerge.
As you begin thinking about your future career as a nurse leader, don’t forget to ask yourself first whether you are a good follower.