Good leaders get a lot of credit—and they deserve it. But leaders (and teams!) can only thrive if they have active followers.
What do I mean? Let me tell you about an experience I had this year in a very different situation—kayaking off the coast of New Zealand.
Out at Sea
“Look at those dark clouds!” We all looked up, jolted from our thoughts, to see the bank of storm clouds that had sneaked up while we sat huddled around a map. This was Day 17 out of 87 on a sea kayaking expedition in the Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and we were stuck.
Earlier that morning, a warning had sounded over our VHF radio telling us that a cyclone was on its way, and all hikers, boaters, and sea kayakers (including us) were advised to leave the Sounds. We had left early in an attempt to get ahead of the storm and find better protection on the other side of the Sound.
As we reached our crossing point hours later, the winds picked up, forcing us to retreat to land and make a decision. Either we would attempt the crossing to the protected bay through strong currents and high winds, or we would backtrack to a sheltered island we had passed earlier that morning.
A few of us were game to push on ahead and take the risk. This was quickly becoming the popular opinion when a team member pointed out the foreboding storm clouds.
“C’mon, we can still make this crossing. I say we go for it,” I remarked. As the designated leader of the day, I was determined to make it to our planned destination, and turning back would feel like a failure.
“I don’t think I would feel comfortable out in that,” admitted a team member, looking hesitantly at the choppy stretch of ocean that I had just suggested paddling through. Others nodded and added that they were tired from the morning and did not like the look of the dark clouds.
They were right; though we had the skill to handle the rough paddling conditions, our fatigue and low morale made the crossing riskier. With our decision made, we set off in the direction we had come from earlier that day.
Leaders Need Active Followers
In the office, within an organization, on an expedition, and in high- or low-stakes settings, the key to success for any team lies with its active followers. NOLS uses the term “active follower” to describe a team member who engages, actively offers input, asks questions, helps to identify and mitigate risk, has personal responsibility, and communicates their needs and goals. Active followers are committed to supporting the team, even if that means letting go of personal goals, and they are willing to challenge the leader’s decisions if those decisions might put the team at risk.
This model is only effective when leaders empower the team to think for themselves, listen to the team’s ideas, and make decisions transparently.
With the storm clouds gathering, my team supported my leadership by being honest and providing the information essential for making a responsible decision. In the end, we evaded the ominous clouds, backtracking to the island and returning to safety.
At the time, it felt like a failure. However, leading the team through danger just to fulfill my own ego and sense of adventure would have been a real failure. A few hours later, we were safely on land again and ready to wait out the cyclone. It was the power of active followers, who admitted to being tired or worried and pointed out the worsening conditions, that enabled us to choose a safe path and avoid unnecessary risks.
Being an Active Follower At Work
In my first few months at Atomic Object, the concept of “active followership” has frequently been on my mind. It occurred to me that being an active follower at work is exactly what I can do to help produce a quality product even without years of experience and a depth of knowledge.
Here are a few ways I try to employ active followership as a new software developer and consultant.
1. Ask questions and offer ideas
It does not matter if you are on your first project or on your thirty-first. Your perspective is valuable to the team. If you do not understand why a certain decision was made, you see a potential risk, or you think there could be a better option, bring it up. Ask more questions.
Someone who is new may not operate under the same assumptions as those who’ve been around for years. Asking more experienced members to help you understand or challenging the reasoning behind their assumptions provides a learning opportunity for the whole team. As a developer, pairing is an excellent way to exercise active followership, and it can help a pair identify risks and readjust their course before they make a costly mistake.
A key part of active followership includes strong communication of your needs and desires. Are there skills or stacks where you want to improve? Do you want to give the demo this week? Are you feeling uneasy about the expectations for the amount of work to get through this sprint? Are you feeling tired or unable to understand an explanation?
Talk to your team! Chances are others want to help or are possibly feeling the same way. Even something as simple as, “Let’s take a coffee or tea break” in the middle of a long pairing session can help to regain clarity and focus. Furthermore, communicating needs and desires can relieve the pressure on any one person to pick a course of action or anticipate needs, and it contributes to the health and engagement of the whole team.
3. Be humble and work hard
Even as an active follower, you may find that things do not always go as you anticipate or hope; a leader or team might overrule your concerns or input. However, being ready to step up to the plate and execute builds trust and respect in the long term.
The best thing I can do as a new developer is to be ready to learn and work hard. Putting in long, draining hours to learn a new stack or skill will pay off, and it shows your team that you give a shit.
Uncertainty, disagreement, and conflict arise any time that a group of people works together to pursue a goal. In those moments, the success of the team depends on its members to engage, listen, communicate, and act. This is true in the business world, in athletics, when building software, and on sea kayaking expeditions.
With the contributions and support of active followers, teams are able to make better decisions, resist complacency, mitigate risks, and ultimately find success.