I’ll follow you: followship and leadership co-arising

In conversations with a friend about our slightly different perspectives and approaches, I looked up definition and etymology of Leadership: “guide”, “cause to go with”. What I freshly appreciated from this was the emphasis on the relationship to the ’other’ who one is causing to go with. That is, that leadership and “followship” co-arise in the same moment, the relationship may be more mutual and reciprocal than paternal, and there’s the possibility that the meaning-making, identity and intentions of the follower may be more important to the relationship than the ‘vision’ of the aspiring leader.

In this post I share a few thoughts and observations from entrepreneurship, herding chickens and fighting on the mat, as they related to the dynamics of leadership and fellowship.

[Disclaimer: While a quick search of the web reveals mostly Christian religious references to ‘followship’ and some followership literature with a business angle, this blog isn’t based on or reference any of it as I haven’t read it all yet, just wanting to do this fresh inquiry from personal experience.]

One interesting aspect of this leadership-following relationship is around ‘responsibility’. In a relationship of leading and following who is responsible? The Latin roots of the word responsibility related to “responding, answering, promising in return”. In that definition and in practise, the moment of leadership and fellowship co-arising is characterised by a mutual responsibility for the direction you are both or all decide to ‘go with’. In my personal experience, the MOST powerful cause of me ‘stepping up’ and taking greater responsibility for my presence, actions and relationships has been realising someone IS actually following me, I am actually influencing them, and I could well be guiding their life, energy and wisdom in an entirely ill-thought-through or problematic direction!

In my field and vocation of nurturing people, innovations and communities, I suspect that the act of following someone very closely is VERY enabling of their development as leaders. By ‘following’ I mean watching, following, listening, attuning to their intentions, visions, hopes, concerns and the trajectories of their ventures. I’m not talking about ’stalking’ or ‘monitoring’, it’s something more like wordlessly encouraging through your non-judgemental presence, with occasional check-ins and inquiries as to how they’re going. If at any time they pause, ponder or turn to you for support, then they can trust you will be right there and available for them to have a conversation and offer the benefit of your 2nd-person or 3rd-person perspective. If you’ve ever had a Board oversee your work in a non-profit, an investor in your start-up, or a coach in your work role I bet you’ll have some insight into the potential upsides of being closely followed!

Boards, investors, coaches and other followers are somewhat like a drone camera hovering over your shoulder as you ski the slopes, a coach watching you swim, or a person read and comment on your blog: the benefit of someone following non-judgementally are immense in terms of immediately affecting your presence, posture and ability (because someone’s watching!), and in terms of material to review in service of increasing your skill, ability and learning. Importantly, if one’s prior experience of someone watching you is that they are always pointing out errors, your emotional state and performance may actually be negatively affected. If your experience is one of nurturing and support without expectation or comparison, one can relax into a natural grace and child-like openness to trying edgy and new things knowing that you are not alone if you fall or fail. While there are no shortage of examples of bad coaching full of projection and expectation, followship can be very enabling experimentation and learning.

Finally, in this world of social media relationships that can be fraught with short attention spans and favour narcissism on an unimaginable scale, someone “following” you has taken on a new meaning and dimension. In a single press of ‘like’ or ‘follow’ one is able to ‘lead’ or guide that person (or organisation) to probably do more of what you just encouraged. There is some responsibility in how you distribute those likes and follows, as they are like currency in the social world – making explicit what is valued in the relational economy. If you are someone who loves getting ‘likes’, ’follows’ or ’shares’ it pays to consider what exactly about you or your post are those people liking and following, and how is that encouragement affecting how and what you are leading? Are you being lead by the latest social media trend and meme in search of instant gratification, are you attuning to and following your heart’s desires, your spirit/God’s calling, your vocation’s ethics or your community’s needs, or are you just goofing around while relaxing?

I suspect there’s something to “followship” as a practise, as the often-forgotten dimension of any ‘leadership’ moment or movement, and merits a longer, embodied practising and inquiry. I’m going to take responsibility for practising followship further, and trying not to project my bias ( it aligns nicely with my resolutions this year were to not do anything new new, and refrain from being paternalistic) before wholeheartedly recommending it to any ‘followers’ (readers) of this blog.

Below, as a footnote, are some other little illustrations and cases of this leadership-followship dynamic.

Dancing and fighting.
I’m loving both dancing and fighting, and what’s most enjoyable is the subtlety of interaction. When dancing (rock’n’roll) men lead and women follow, but without both roles being played simultaneously and fully it gets pretty awkward and ugly. As a man leading, I need to attune to what signals and shifts the lady responds to so that I can guide her. Similarly in fighting, if I want to lead the opponent off-balance, I need to really pay attention and inquiry into what they respond to: some opponents watch my every move and weight shift while others are only lead by very blunt moves if at all. In turn, if I am not following what my opponent is doing, their habits, weight and movements I’m very likely to be surprised by a punch to the head that I just didn’t see coming.

Herding chickens, rabbits and sheep.
I’m no horse-whisperer, however I’ve had a little experience getting animals to move in a certain direction. The main art in herding these sorts of animals seems to be in attuning to their particular habits and relationships. To lead (or ‘cause them to go with’) means something very different for each. If I try to force our chickens in a direction they automatically resist and try to go back around me. Similarly with rabbits, they always seem to end up in the cage faster if one leaves the door to their home open and maintains a respectful distance so they can ‘choose’ to go in at a relaxed pace, rather than chased.

Engaging in politics and democracy.
The amazing thing about democracy (in theory, at least) is the reciprocity of responsibility between the politicians and electorates. While many citizens whinge about the quality or character of their politicians, I have witnessed politicians whinge privately about the ignorance and incoherence of their own electors. While I’ve often ranted about someone (me?) needing to hold politicians to account, I tire of the endless attacking tone of radio journalists and think the more enabling dynamic of simply following them closely and engaging in a sort of mutuality of leading and following: “Hey, that was a great policy you put in place last year and I was really supportive. How’s the implementation going?” will probably lead to an interesting conversation. We can trust politicians will follow us at some stage, as they need our votes to maintain their position.

Personal relationships.

Just prior to finalising this blog post I had a very unhappy experience of not following my partners lead into vulnerability and intimacy. It’s definitely the case in our house that attuning to and surfing with each other’s emotions, attention and energy levels is a pre-condition to getting along and nurturing each other. Without following each other closely, there’s little hope of ‘leading’ anyone else to the bath, the park for a walk, or to realising our collective dreams, aspirations and potential. At home is definitely an arena where my followship needs a lot more work : )

2 thoughts on “I’ll follow you: followship and leadership co-arising

  1. Great post Andrew. There is always a fine line between telling people what we think they want to hear, what they want to hear and what they need to hear. Far from quoting Spiderman in that “with great power comes great responsibility” we are sometimes confronted with leaders who shouldn’t be. This article I found a couple of years ago is good https://hbr.org/2013/07/how-and-why-to-be-a-leader-not/. There is also the notion that without followers a leader is nothing so all leaders need to be a little crazy and to inspire others to be great leaders and followers. See this vid https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ .

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for the comments! That Spiderman quote is really a great one, and I recall several enlightenment teachers / gurus even quoting it! Thanks also for the link to Umar’s writing – might dive into more of it. And, the video – you know, we played that video at the first ever ‘launch’ of Pollinators in SaltDish cafe in 2010 and it remains a great case-in-point for many real social dynamics and basis for questioning common misconceptions about leaders and leadership.

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