Why good followers are important, and 8 qualities good followers must possess

By Sarah McQuade | Posted 10/18/2017

A Google search for leadership in sport will provide about 142 million options; by contrast, a search for followership in sport will provide only 371,000. This statistic alone is telling when we consider how the concepts are perceived, used and integrated on and off the football field.

The link between effective leadership and performance is widely understood and accepted. The flip side of leadership is followership. It stands to reason that if leadership is important to performance, followership is important too. Followership is a straightforward concept. It is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you. 

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Followership is a globally underrated quality. It is rarely viewed admirably and followers are often seen as being incapable of making independent decisions and consistently being led astray, perhaps like sheep. The irony is that great leaders on their journey to the helm have demonstrated an ability to follow and function effectively in a group. 

How well the followers follow is probably just as important to the performance outcome as how well the leaders lead. Leadership relies on its followers to push it.

You have no doubt spent time this season choosing your captains and training their leadership skills. You know why you selected the captains, and inevitably you based your choices around their ability to lead and influence others. What then are the qualities of a follower, and how do you train and cultivate those?

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The Ivy Business Journal has attempted to isolate the qualities of a good follower in the business world and the world of sport would do well to draw a parallel with those:

  1. Judgment. Followers must take direction, but not blindly. Good judgment is required to establish the difference between following good instructions following or contending instructions that are ethically inappropriate or constitute unsportsmanlike behaviour
  2. Work ethic. Good followers are good workers. They are diligent, motivated, committed, pay attention to detail and make the effort. 
  3. Competence. In order to follow, followers must be competent. They must have the relevant knowledge and skills to play their position, whether they play on offense, defense or special teams.
  4. Honesty. Followers have a responsibility to be honest. Respect and politeness are important and followers also have to be able to offer constructively critical feedback.
  5. Courage. It takes real courage to confront a leader about concerns with the leader or that leader’s agenda. 
  6. Discretion. Followers owe leaders discretion. Talking about the sport, teammates, coaches and other staff inappropriately is at best unhelpful and more likely harmful. 
  7. Loyalty.  Loyalty is important and relies on strong allegiance and commitment. A lack of loyalty can cause problems between team members. It can compromise performance on and off the field. Quality loyalty is not a synonym for lapdog. Followers should remember that their obligation is to the team, not necessarily a given leader at a given point in time.
  8. Ego management. Good followers have their egos under control.  They are team players in the fullest sense of the concept. They have good interpersonal skills. Success for good followers relates to performance and goal achievement, not personal recognition and self-promotion. 

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Consider how well your followers possess these skills. Perhaps rank them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all and 10 very well. Once you have conducted this exercise, identify the skills and capabilities you need to cultivate and build these overtly into the practice program.

Sarah McQuade is an independent coach education consultant, owner and director of e.t.c coaching consultants and co-director with The Coach Learning Group. To learn more about accessing how-to coach skills workshops, click the Coaching Skills button at www.etcoachingconsultants.com