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Follow first, then lead

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The importance of being a good follower is often underestimated

I recently happened across an old TED talk where the speaker, entrepreneur Derek Sivers, spoke on how to start a movement.

He highlighted the importance of being a good follower, with the help of a light-hearted video. It started with someone on a hillside, who suddenly got up and started dancing madly.

Sivers focused our attention - not on this rather strange "leader", but on the first person to get up and "follow" this dancing guy.

That first follower was the crucial person, said Sivers, since he influenced others to join in.

In no time at all, a large group collected, dancing away maniacally. And hey presto - a movement was born!

A client recently mentioned that the leaders who inspired him the most were those who had been good followers as well.

It got me thinking about how little is shared about the good "followership" traits many great leaders must have had.

While most aspire to be a good leader, few would like to be known as a "good follower", despite the fact that followers are usually the ones that make things happen.

Some prefer to use the term "team player" as a substitute, as it sounds more egalitarian.

The aversion to being labelled a "good follower" is likely due to the mistaken belief that followers trail along blindly after their leader.

I think differently.

My definition of a good follower is someone who believes strongly in the cause of the leader and is able to influence others to do the same.

Good followers are competent, motivated, intelligent and hard-working, like their leader.

They are excellent at communicating and adept at managing the situation - both upwards and downwards. They are able to stand up to the leader when needed, and refuse to be yes-men.

Here are some of my thoughts on being a good follower:

1. Being a good follower can happen at all stages of your life

Practising good followership techniques is useful at any time, for those starting their careers, middle or senior management.

Everyone can be a follower, no matter how senior they become.

2. Know when it is time to lead and when it is time to follow

In some projects, there may be several people of the same seniority.

If all these people try to lead, there is the tendency to start bickering or taking independent action, without communicating to the others.

If this should happen to you, once the project leader has been confirmed, have the humility, courage and foresight to set aside competitiveness and become a good follower, for the benefit of the project.

3. Be committed to the cause

The extent of this commitment will be demonstrated by the follower's ability to go beyond the immediate tasks and targets on hand.

This includes constantly researching the market, to ensure the team is fully up to date, and even a few steps ahead. This will hold the follower in good stead when it is time to don the leadership position.

4. Become indispensable to the leader, business and cause

Good followers become the go-to person for leaders, when they need help in handling challenging problems or getting things done.

Followers are people who can inspire trust and confidence in others. Remember, a great follower can easily become the No. 2, and a great No. 2 is just one step away from being The Boss.

In a world of partnerships where no individual is isolated, followers play a vital part in forming the cohesive society we need for a civilised life.

And the best of them become leaders in the end.

The writer is a mentor at Terrific Mentors International, an organisation that provides mentoring and training.