Are you a leader or a follower?

Are you a leader or a follower? | Jennifer Spoelma
That's a hard question to answer, isn't it?

If you're like me, your initial answer might be, "Yes?" And that's A-okay! We can be both leaders and followers in different portions of our professional and social life.

So in reality, the issue isn't about which category you fall into, but how comfortable you feel owning the identity of a leader or follower.

Your leadership potential is tied to the extent to which you see yourself as a leader. That's why it's so important that we learn how to create and own a leadership identity.

According to leadership research, a leadership identity is made up of three different elements: individual internalization, relational recognition, and collective endorsement (De Rue).

Let's break each of those elements down.

Individual Internalization:

This means you see yourself as a leader. We've talked about this before, but this can be the hardest element to cultivate.

Once you've internalized a leadership identity, you believe you have what it takes to lead others and are motivated to continue developing your leadership.

Relational Recognition:

This is when the the other people in the relationship recognize your leadership status. For example, a parent/child relationship has defined leader/follower roles that both sides usually reinforce.

What I find interesting is that our leadership identity is stronger to the extent that others approve of our leadership efforts or affirm our status as leaders in the relationship. It's a two way street - if the people you are trying to lead don't see you as a leader (even if you are above them in a hierarchal structure), not only will you be less effective as a leader, but your confidence in your potential will fade too.

Collective Endorsement:

This happens in the larger social context where you are leading/following. Basically, it means that the more people that witness your leadership, the more you will be perceived as a leader--which lends to more leadership opportunities--which further reinforces a leadership identity.

Something to be mindful of: The three elements we just walked through above also apply to the process of developing a followership identity.

A followership identity? What's that?

It sounds weird, I know. Simply put, it means you see yourself as a follower as opposed to a leader. It's strange because being a follower is more of a default option--it's what happens if you aren't intentional about being a leader. We don't need to strategize how to be a follower, therefore followership isn't something we usually talk about.

It's important that we dissect which behaviors and actions form these different identities. That way we can check ourselves, and maybe even each other, so that we keep on keeping on in our leadership development.

Leadership Claiming Actions:
  • Stating, "If you have any questions, I'm happy to answer them."
  • Initiating meetings, conversations or topics for discussion.
  • Offering solutions to problems you see.
Followership Claiming Actions:
  • Stating, "I'm just not the leader type."
  • Deflecting responsibility to someone else.
  • Staying silent until someone addresses you.

It is certainly okay to flow between leadership and followership roles in different relationships in your life. For example, at work you may be seen as a leader on your team, but then take on a follower role in a community group (e.g. a running team, volunteer opportunity, etc.). We don't need to be the leaders in every sphere of life to be leaders.

In fact, even in the same organization you may find yourself (or those around you) adopting different roles. I've noticed myself doing this at work. I am part of my company's research and development team. When I'm in meetings with the product engineers, I tend towards follower behaviors, looking to them as the leaders. However, when I go to other departments in our company to teach and train about our products, I take on the leadership role.

This is good news because it means that we aren't stuck always being either a leader or a follower! We can move across the spectrum depending on the circumstance.

Along with our personal ability to shift from follower to leader (and vice versa) given the situation, we should also keep in mind that there are different conceptions of how leadership is distributed.

Some people hold a more traditional view of leadership that is hierarchical, meaning there is one leader and they are at the top. Many people and organizations, however, hold a more modern view of shared leadership. This allows for a team to have multiple leaders and creates an environment that encourages all members to develop their leadership skills.

While it's not guaranteed that every organization, and certainly not every person abides by this open view of leadership, it is well worth developing for ourselves.

Here's why: You can grant leadership to others with no harm to your own leadership. In fact, enabling others to lead can be seen as the ultimate leadership. You can empower others to be their fullest, best selves. This communicates a deep self-confidence in your own abilities.

This is called 'leadership granting.' It means affirming the leadership we see in others, or providing ways for them to exercise their leadership skills. You can grant leadership to others right where you are now, regardless of your position.

To me, this is one of the most beautiful elements of leadership. Here are some examples of the contrast between leadership and followership granting behaviors:

Leadership Granting Actions:
  • Referring to someone as a leader.
  • Offering the head of a meeting table to another person.
  • Asking someone for advice or direction.
Followership Granting Actions:
  • Not looking to someone for guidance or direction.
  • Requesting help working on defined tasks, with little creative freedom.
  • Mentioning lack of connections to other leaders.

It's pretty obvious that leadership granting is more life-giving, isn't it?

Let's be leaders that give life to other leaders--no matter how far along we, or they, are on our leadership journeys.

What do we do next?

  1. Pay attention to your tendencies. Do you tend to invite leadership opportunities or deflect them? What factors have the strongest influence on whether you claim leadership or followership in a situation? Being self aware will help you to be more intentional in situations where you want to develop your leadership.
  2. Grant leadership to others. Whether female or male, experienced or inexperienced, we are all insecure about our ability to lead well. Affirm the people in your life who are doing their part to make the world a better place through their leadership.
What are your biggest challenges when accepting leadership opportunities?

Thanks for being part of the journey with me.

Warmly, Jennifer Spoelma