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Leadership in Reverse

Want a better organization? Promote good followership.

September 17, 2014  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

The dynamic mission of a motor unit requires leaders and followers to change roles often. Photo: Traci Dean
The dynamic mission of a motor unit requires leaders and followers to change roles often. Photo: Traci Dean

Every profession espouses the virtues of leadership and spends a great deal of time, money, and effort trying to build leaders within their own organizations. But what about followers, which are the flip side of the equation? You can't have good leadership without good followership.

So what does it take to be a good follower and help accomplish organizational goals and objectives? It's quite simple; I call it leadership in reverse. Every follower has to be a leader in his or her own right.

Shared Traits

Anyone who has worked within an organization, regardless of size, learns quickly that you lead people but you manage things. Yes, the semantics matter. Leaders and managers are not interchangeable words, though some administrators would have you think they are. Leadership is the process of exerting influence over the efforts of others while working toward the achievement of a goal. Reversing my working definition of leadership provides the definition of followership: the process of accepting influence over your efforts while working toward the achievement of a goal. The key here is that both leader and follower are working toward achieving the same goal.

The truth is that at some point we all take on the role of leader and follower in everything we do because you can't have one without the other. Leadership traits are incorporated into follower traits and vice versa.

Because there are so many ways to frame these traits, I've narrowed this discussion down to 10 discussed in John Maxwell's "The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader." Let's look at them from both the leadership and followership perspectives.


Leaders indicate their character by their actions. As a leader, not everyone hears what you say but everyone sees what you do.

Followers indicate their character by their actions. The leader may not see or hear from you every day, but he or she will know if you are helping or hurting in the completion of a task or in your helping to fulfill the assigned goal.


Leaders must be committed to the goals they are trying to achieve or no one will follow them. It separates the doers from the dreamers.

Followers must accept goals and be committed to their achievement, or they will never get done to a high standard. In followers, commitment separates the doers from those just treading water.


The goal of all communication is action. It helps a leader share knowledge and ideas and to motivate others.

If the goal of communication is action, then the follower is the one who translates it into direct action. The follower accepts the knowledge, ideas, and motivation and, in turn, shares his or her own knowledge, ideas, and motivation within the group to make things happen.


For the leader, competence means showing up every day and coming in ready to work. It means learning, growing, and improving. It means accomplishing more than expected. It doesn't mean knowing everything but it does mean knowing how to get it done by directing and facilitating resources.

For the follower, competence pretty much means the same thing. However, as the follower you are the subject matter expert at your level. Whereas the leader may only be familiar with aspects of your job, you have to know your job inside and out. The leader depends on this in order to be effective.


The keys to a leader's focus are establishing priorities and concentrating on getting them done. A leader who knows what his or her priorities are but lacks the concentration knows what to do but never gets it done.

The keys to a follower's focus are working on priorities and concentrating on getting them done. Followers focus their efforts in order to work smarter and not harder.


Success is connected to action. Leaders know what they want and push themselves to act. They don't wait for things to happen; hey help make things happen.

Success is connected to action. Followers know what needs to be done and don't wait. Followers take goals and objectives and run with them.

Positive Attitudes:

Your attitude is a choice that everyone sees. Your attitude determines your actions. As a leader, your people are often a mirror of your attitude.

Your attitude is a choice that everyone sees. Your attitude determines your actions. As a follower, your attitude reflects who you are as an individual and how you perform in a group setting. If your leader has a bad attitude you don't have to follow in his or her footsteps; you can choose to keep a positive attitude and focus on your part of the mission.

Problem Solving:

Leaders anticipate problems. They see the big picture. They get measured by how they deal with any problems.

Followers deal with problems. They realize they are part of the big picture and not excluded from it. They get measured by how they solve problems.


Leaders understand they must build a team. Team building requires developing working relationships to get things done.

Followers understand they are part of a team. They understand working relationships and also know their limits and aren't afraid to speak out when necessary.


Leaders accept responsibility for their actions or lack of action. It's never about blaming followers but about mission accomplishment.

Followers accept responsibility for their actions or lack of action. It's never about blaming leaders but about mission accomplishment.

Focus on Followership

As you can see, leadership and followership are highly intertwined. You can take any leadership trait and easily translate it without much effort into a followership trait. You really can't have one without the other. It goes so far beyond the oversimplified premise that a leader spells out what needs to be done, and the follower just does it. I have worked with many organizations that, despite periods of bad leadership, continued to function well because followers made it happen.

It's obvious that everyone can't be in charge, yet so much time and effort is spent on leadership that the second half of the equation is all but lost. There are a lot more officers than chiefs. Maybe it's time we start focusing our efforts a bit more on the officers and developing followership as a starting point for both if we want better results.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has over 27 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

DaveS55 @ 9/18/2014 10:50 PM

Thanks for the excellent article and subject on leadership...Leadership is from all levels within the team!

Reminds of this saying here: “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” - David Brinkley

J. Allen @ 9/19/2014 5:41 AM

Historically if they are terrible followers, they probably won't be good leaders either.

kevCopAz @ 9/19/2014 7:04 AM

Good article! Perhaps those that think they are leaders will realize that without followers they are nothing! Perhaps taking less credit for the good results of team effort. I never could understand while some leaders feel that their part in any effort was the reason the effort was successful never knowing that the follower is the key to any successful effort. Smart leaders realize this and shy away from credit and point in the right direction as to reasons why things really get done. Those same "leaders" are the vary same ones who when the effort fails, they all of a sudden point the finger at the followers and make comments like "if they were on the same page" things would have worked, the blame falls on the followers. Because we all know that such "leaders" (self impotent users) would never have a bad plan or poor leadership! (yeah right) Teddy Roosevelt was a great leader but if he rode up San Juan hill alone without good followers, he would have been up the creek(no paddle)

GATEWAY GUY @ 9/19/2014 8:30 PM

Good to a point. To me a good leader should know how to, or have done the job of the followers. If a leader CANNOT do this. They are worthless. They have no right being a leader. I have had "leaders" like this. They were a hassle to work for, and nothing got done. You tried to show them how something went, if a problem came up, they would not listen. As a matter of fact, all they did was yell and scream. At one point, I left the office in the middle of one of his tantrums. I have had leaders that had done the same job that I was doing, and things went MUCH smoother in the dept. THIS type ,I would follow anywhere.

David Couper @ 5/20/2015 4:55 AM

I like the idea of "every officer a leader." These are tough times for everyone -- if we don't lead, we will falter. Follow this blog from a veteran police chief: for leadership and ways to move forward beyond Ferguson and Baltimore.

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