Followers Are Earned

Followers Are Earned

By Dave Anderson


The first section I teach in my Up Your Business 3.0 Super Leadership workshop is called, “How to Become a Leader Worth Following.” In it, I list eight essential traits leaders should demonstrate daily to add value to their team. I open the section with a few points for perspective on leadership:

  • A title doesn’t make you a leader; it simply buys you time to become one—to earn influence or to lose it, to get the job done or to blow it.
  • Ultimately, leadership is performance, not position. It’s a daily choice you make, not a place at the head of a conference table where you sit.
  • It’s delusional to believe that someone in a leadership position has “followers” simply because he or she has a leadership title. Followers are earned; they are not automatic.

In this column, I’ll address the third point and include steps to convert subordinates into followers. But first, here are three quick opening thoughts to set the stage:

1. Subordinates are not committed, they are compliant.

By definition, a subordinate is “a person under authority or control of another within an organization.” Frankly, this sounds more like a driven stake than a stakeholder. At the end of the day, a compliant subordinate tends to do just enough to get by and then stop. They have a “job,” and nothing more. It’s safe to say that you won’t build a great organization around this baseline level of effort.

By comparison, a follower is defined as, “a devotee to a particular person, activity or cause.” Someone devoted is far more likely to go the second mile than one who is just under authority and compliant.

2. Before you earn followers, you must first earn buy-in from your people. 

Buyin is never automatic, regardless of how long you’ve been the leader, or even if you own the place. And until people buy into you, they’re not going to buy into your vision, ideas, changes, processes and more. Here’s a quick rundown of what subordinates must buy into to become followers:

  • Your character. They ask, “Can I trust you?”
  • Your competence. They need to see that you: know what you’re doing, make good decisions, and are steering them towards success.
  • Your consistency. Do you demonstrate sound character and competence consistently, or only every onceinawhile?
  • Your compassion. Do you care about them, or are they just another head in a herd of cattle—a means to an end that you use to get what you want out of life?

3. Just as your leadership style can convert subordinates into followers, so can it demote followers into subordinates.

Your leadership ultimately elevates or devastates team effort and performance.

With the following points in mind, here are four steps to convert subordinates into followers:

4. Enroll team members in a mission and vision bigger than themselves.

Mission and vision unify a team around a common purpose and direction. This addresses an important human need, not just in the workplace, but in life: human beings want to feel part of something special; that they have a cause—a campaign—and not just an existence.

Mission is your purpose and defines why you exist as an organization. Without a clear and compelling mission, team members are prone to develop their own agendas and do what’s right in their own eyes, instead of what moves the team forward as a whole. Vision is a specific and quantifiable direction, giving the team a common goal to unite behind and work towards. Strong mission and vision bring clarity to the workplace, and clarity empowers people, focuses attention, and ignites effort.

 5. Prepare to earn buy-in daily.

Buyin earns the discretionary effort necessary to move subordinates into the ranks of a true follower. Discretionary effort is the extra work someone puts in because they want to, not because they’re required to. It’s the mark of strong teams, robust cultures, and effective leadership. In fact, you can measure your own leadership by how much discretionary effort you’re currently getting from your team. If it’s a lot, then congratulations. If it’s anemic, you have some work to do.

 6. Learn how to motivate team members as unique individuals.

You must know people to move people; and, when you take the time to find out what moves each of your people personally, you help build the personal connection that foreruns commitment. Did you get that last point? Connection foreruns commitment. That being said, do you spend enough time connecting with, building relationships with, and trying to understand the unique makeup of each of your direct reports? If not, you have even more work to do.

7. Invest heavily in their development.

Knowing that they’re growing motivates, stretches, and inspires team members to give greater effort to apply what they’re learning and achieve even more. One of the greatest triggers for extra performance in the workplace is knowing you’re getting better and wanting to show it. As you spend time and money investing in your people, they tend to want to use what they’re learning and will become more committed performers in the process. Frankly, if you don’t invest in your people, not only do you not deserve buyin from them, but you also don’t deserve to retain them at all; and, you probably won’t—it’s just a matter of time.

As you become more aware of the steps you need to take to earn and keep buyin, and convert subordinates into followers, you’ll find it’s not a todo list item that you ever scratch off as “complete.” Rather, it’s a daily leadership discipline that pays substantial benefits for the leaders who care enough about their people to prioritize their people in this manner.