From the time we are young, we are lectured to become leaders in school and extracurricular activities. Parents, teachers, advisors, coaches and other adults encourage us to seek leadership experience, to learn to become leaders.
Colleges and universities want to see leadership on applications and employers want to see leadership on resumes. They tell us: “it isn’t enough to just be a part of the soccer team; you have to be the captain. It’s nice that you are in the honors club; but it’d be better if you are the president.”
So perhaps it is surprising that being a leader is not the main thing that Google seeks when hiring.
In fact, it is almost just the opposite.
In the world today, the most efficient way to solve problems tends to be through teamwork. By collaborating and sharing ideas, the knowledge of many people can be combined to create a solution that no one person could have come up with alone.
This being said, as important as it is to know how to be a leader, perhaps it is more important to know when and how to follow. It is important to know how to collaborate and work well with others in groups. It is important to know how to be a team player and be willing to step back and not call all of the shots all of the time.
Google and other big companies want individuals who know how to lead and who are willing to relinquish that power when they need to.
“Leader” and “follower” are relational antonyms, meaning one does not exist without the other. Leaders would not exist without followers, so it stands to reason that followers are equally as important as leaders. But for some reason all of the attention seems to be put on the leader and usually the followers just get lumped together and ignored.
The connotation of a follower is often negative. Don’t follow the crowd, we hear. Don’t be a sheep or a lemming. Certainly, a mindless follower is not powerful.
So how does one become a powerful follower, one who is as important as the leader?
Speak up. Give your ideas. And don’t give up if those ideas are shot down. Be open to the ideas of others. Keep actively participating and contributing to your team. Be dependable. Understand that as a follower, you are following. Let your leader lead and support her or him. Be dedicated to your team. Remember that often the most influential person in a meeting is the one who first supports a good idea.
It’s the followers that turn the leaders’ or initiators’ goals and projects into realities.
So be the captain. Be the president. But learn how to work with others. Learn how to be led.
Learning to be a team player and learning to be a follower are just as important as learning to be a leader.
And put that on your next resume or application.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Maren McInnes, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.
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