Being followers before becoming leaders allows high-potential employees to build up a unique social capital that enables them to lead effectively. High-potential employees are all good followers, and being good followers makes them suitable for leadership in the eyes of their peers.

Leadership coaching professionals know a person who is not a good follower is unfit to lead. Followership and leadership are inextricably intertwined. One does not exist without the other, and it is easy to prove that one stems directly from its counterpart.

The concept of “high-potential” employees is essential to the leadership succession efforts of organizations with intelligent leaders. What is a high-potential employee?

High-potential employees are good followers.

High-potential employees are those likely to fill future leadership positions in organizations. How can current leaders determine if an employee is a potential successor? By looking at how good their employees are at followership. High-potential employees are all good followers, and they share some obvious traits.

How Do You Recognize a High-Potential Employee?

The path to leadership starts with followership, and followers exhibiting traits that make them good followers are likely to emerge as leaders of the future.

  • A flawless work ethic is the mark of a great follower and a great leader. Motivated employees who understand how their work fits organizational goals and purposes are more likely to display this trait.
  • Good followers are confident, but not arrogant. Empowered employees know their capabilities and limits. They are highly effective at their jobs without falling into the trap of arrogance.
  • High-potential employees are trustworthy. Leaders and managers can trust them to complete tasks and place organizational goals above their personal preferences.
  • Good followers are approachable and easy to be around. They are good at minimizing friction with their peers and leaders.

Why Followership Precedes Leadership

In my leadership development books, I’ve always stressed the importance of skills that help leaders connect with their reports in meaningful and productive ways.

Followership is the best teacher of such skills.

A study by the British Royal Marines produced interesting results concerning the links between leadership and followership.

Its outcomes suggested participants who viewed themselves as leaders were more likely to appear leader-like in the eyes of their superiors.

Followership creates leaders organically without regard to the existence of rigid or flexible hierarchies. Followership gives high-potential people opportunities to prove their leadership suitability directly and unequivocally.

The “One of Us” Mentality

We tend to appreciate organically emerging leaders more than those who draw their authority from different sources.

Social capital is a precious commodity. 

Good followers are seldom subservient. They are more effective than their peers due to an attitude that prioritizes getting the job done over getting things done their way.

This attitude allows high-potential employees to act in the interests of the group and on its behalf. It leads to the development of a shared identity that allows organic leaders to exert social influence.

From the perspective of executive or business coaching, leaders should aim to connect with their teams on an organic, grassroots level.

Followership and Approachability

Approachability is a follower skill that deserves special attention. It can predict leadership potential better than the other essential follower skills.

Being easy to approach and be around means you may receive more opportunities to ascend to a leadership position than your difficult peers. It would seem that being approachable is an easy skill to master, but workplaces often contain people with bad attitudes and cynicism.

CEOs cannot afford to waste time on difficult employees. Thus, they place their focus on easygoing people who are reliable and likely to generate minimal friction through their interactions.

Good leaders start as good followers because followership allows them to build the social capital and trust they need to inspire others to follow. Through followership, leaders of the future develop shared values, experiences, and concerns that allow them to genuinely pursue the interests of a group through their decisions. These abilities enable leaders to “lead at following,” modeling the behaviors the organization values and leading by example.


Back to blog