Building Followership

Beginning Steps in the development of self-reflective tools for the Leadership

Note: Based on requests, this piece is the beginning of a “crowd sourcing” experiment. After a brief introduction to provide a bit of context, I’m going to share a beginning list of self-reflection prompts for the assessment of leadership/followership. My goal is to make this a work in progress and to have you add additional questions that might be used in self-reflection. It is not intended to be a complete guide or eventual product. It’s a starting point. I hope you’ll feel free to try it out, modify it as you like and share it with a kindred spirit. I encourage you to use the Comment option of this blog to share your experiences and suggestions with others. You can also use my email at to add your thoughts.

In a recent post I shared my observations about the path to leadership. I want to add a few thoughts to the concept of leadership before addressing the path to it.

Leadership is an ongoing process. It neither begins nor ends with the acquisition of a title. It involves both means and ends. Leadership involves the recognition of the ownership of the responsibility for nurturing, supporting, challenging our relationships and followers around a commonly held vision/purpose.  In Leading in a Culture of Change, Michael Fullan offers…

Whatever one’s style, every leader, to be effective, must have and work on improving his or her moral purpose. Moral purpose is about both ends and means. Authentic leaders, in other words, display character, and character is the defining characteristic of authentic leadership…

Moral purpose cannot just be stated it must be accompanied by strategies for realizing it, and those strategies are the leadership actions that energize people to pursue a desired goal.

Here’s a quick recap of I shared as critical strategies in the development of Leadership:

The keys to Leadership:

Conversations – open, honest, caring conversations lead to Relationships.

Relationships – solid, confident relationships lead to a sense of trust or feeling of security inside a “Circle of Safety”.

Trust/Circle of Safety – provide us with the willingness to take risks, a sense of security that we will be protected and that we would do the same for others inside of our circle – i.e., we are willing to follow those whom we trust.

Followership – willingness to follow those whom we trust, knowing that we can have open, honest, caring conversations about our concerns and that our relationship is important to our leaders.

The components that I’ve offered her are not meant to be exhaustive. The leadership process is an ongoing interaction of skills/dispositions, relationships, and situations.  I’ve elected to focus on the “Keys to Leadership”  because, as I’ll discuss next, they have been more causal in success/failure than many of the concepts treated formally in leadership programs.

While I’ve listed the components in a linear forma, they are constantly interacting and reinforcing (or impeding) one another.  Quality conversations don’t stop when a good relationship has been developed.  Attention to relationships doesn’t end when we perceive that people now feel safe.  While good conversations lead to more positive relationships, such relationships also lead to better and deeper conversations.

My thinking on these components stemmed both from a conversation with Tom Sergiovanni and my experiences working with more than a hundred schools during my years as an education consultant. Dr. Sergiovanni expressed the concept quite clearly… “Leadership is the capacity to create followership”. He followed that statement with another, “If you look behind you and nobody’s following, you ain’t leading!”

After unsuccessfully trying retirement for the second time, I was blessed to have the opportunity to work for more than ten years with some exceptional educators at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).   In my capacity as traveling consultant, I had the chance to work with school leaders and teachers throughout the country. A number of these experiences were very successful. Others were less so.

In many instances, the need for improvement was not questioned and the challenge for me was to build followership among school leaders around strategies that might result in desired improvement, including the development of followership among staff and students around the improvement initiative. In other instances, the primary task was to build followership around purpose among school leaders who had been directed to produce better results but who had little or no emotional connection to the project.

As I reflected on the range of experiences (both successes and failures), I initially fell into the trap that I had so often seen with school leaders and educators in schools that I visited… explanations for lack of progress that were too frequently “other directed” – i.e., if only the students would work harder, if only the teachers would try new things, If only “they” would… etc., etc. etc.

In my initial self-reflections, my version was equally “other directed” – if only the principal would exert more leadership, if only the teachers would place learning as the highest priority, etc., etc. etc. Only closer to end of my career have I begun to recognize that my reflections needed to be “inward directed”. What had I not done (or done poorly) that accounted for the lack of followership?


Creative Commons – Jennie

It was then that I had another epiphany (see post here about the first one). I saw a connection between things that I had been reading and treating as if they were isolated thoughts instead of interlocking puzzle pieces.

My puzzle pieces: As I mentioned previously, I had become aware of the relationship between leadership and followership due to my encounter with Tom Sergiovanni. I had learned from Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about the “Circle of Safety” and had encountered the connection between conversations and relationship from my readings of Susan Scott’s works, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership. But the epiphany came when I saw the connection among these and started to apply them to my own self-reflections.

What follows is a bit of a synthesis of my own process of self-reflection – the questions that I’ve developed over time and have used to assess my experience trying to build followership.

The self-assessment: Ideally, this should be completed as a self-reflection and also, minimally, by a cross-section of prospective “followers”. The addition of response from “critical friends” will facilitate the discovery of areas of dissonance… areas in which self-perception and “follower” perceptions differ significantly. Implicit in the process is the identification/exploration of growth steps in areas which seem to require additional attention.

Based on some trial uses, I’m suggesting that you use the following scale in response to the statements. Recording these responses enhances the likelihood of seeing patterns as well as possible priorities for attention.

Suggested scale: 1 – Never; 2 – Occasionally; 3 – Often; 4 – Always

For Conversations

  • I am highly present in my conversations.
  • I establish and maintain eye contact.
  • I listen at least as much as I speak.
  • Participants feel heard/listened to at the conclusion of our conversation.
  • I shy away from difficult conversations.
  • I am always honest in my conversations.
  • There topics that are not discussable in my work.
  • I feel secure in having/initiating difficult conversations.

For Relationships

  • I am intentional about building and maintaining relationships with staff members.
  • I am inclusive in my relationship building efforts.
  • I am comfortable with my relationships at work.
  • I deal well with people with whom I am uncomfortable.
  • Members of the staff see me as caring about them.

For Trust/Circle of Safety

  • I see myself as trustworthy.
  • I identify any issues/actions which weaken the sense of trust in my leadership.
  • Staff members feel safe taking risks under my leadership.
  • I identify any specifics risks taken by those under my leadership.

For Followership

  • I have a clear sense of my vision for our school.
  • I have communicated this vision to staff.
  • The staff understands my vision.
  • There is observable commitment to this vision by the staff.
  • I have a cadre of people I can count on to support my vision.
  • There is a segment of the staff that does not agree with/act in support of my vision.

For Leadership

  • I have a clear vision for my work.
  • I effectively communicated that vision?*
  • The vision is well understood.
  • I been intentional about the development of the achievement of that vision.
  • I been inclusive in my involvement of colleagues and staff in the work.
  • We developed measures to assess the achievement of the vision.

What’s Next?

OK, so I didn’t do so well in my self-reflection on conversations. Or, man, I suck at relationships? What do I do?  In my next post, I’ll be sharing an annotated list of resources, grouped by the components of followership/leadership… places where I’ve been able to find starting points for areas that I identified in myself (or mentees) for growth.

Your turn…

Is this framework useful for you?

What could be changed to enhance your use of such a tool? – i.e., What can you add, modify or delete to help create a picture that you would trust as guidance for assessing/improving your capacity to develop followership and achieve your vision for your school’s learning community?


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