Let’s start this by tackling the elephant in the room. The term “follower” has had a negative connotation for many years. How many times have you heard the expressions “be a LEADER, not a FOLLOWER” or “if you aren’t the lead dog, the view never changes”. Somewhere in the past we collectively decided followers were those who executed the orders of the leaders, without a thought on why. This likely happened during the age of manufacturing as the most primary pillar of economic prosperity.
If you look up the term follower in Dictionary.com, you will find these top 4 definitions:
1. a person or thing that follows.
2. a person who follows another in regard to his or her ideas or belief; disciple or adherent.
3. a person who imitates, copies, or takes as a model or ideal:
a. “He was little more than a follower of current modes”.
4. an attendant, servant, or retainer.
Other online dictionaries include devotee as a synonym. That brought me back to a couple of events in recent history such as Jonestown Guyana, and the Heaven’s Gate groups. For those of you unfamiliar, I’ll leave it to you to Google them. Then ask yourself if you can understand how the term follower could have a negative connotation.
And while that may be acceptable (and in some cases necessary) in some industries (the military, manufacturing and luxury yachting come to mind) the largest number of jobs today are in the knowledge work field. The contributor type of knowledge workers are those that use technology and information/data to create value for an organization’s customers. Value that those customers will pay for. Contributor knowledge workers mostly follow directives not instructions by leaders by using their skills and experiences to contribute to the higher goal.
For example, if Nike develops a new athletic shoe, the marketing department leader will assign followers to develop a marketing campaign. The leader doesn’t generally say “Step one, do research by next Tuesday, step two figure out the best approach for our core market by Friday, Step three, determine how we can appeal to all diversity groups by the end of next week….”. The leader would say “we need to attract the core markets we have today while enticing other segments” and “we need the new campaign ready for the Superbowl ads”. The leader is counting on the followers to make contributions to the project to deliver the higher goal without explicit direction. The followers might even take offense if the leader attempted to micro-manage the team.
So pause for a moment and consider the mismatch of the term follower in today’s knowledge-work environment. Should we consider leading these knowledge workers as contributors versus followers? If so, how? I’ll talk about this in my next post.