Leadership Roles Not For You? Become a Follower

The Importance of Great Followers

The names of great leaders fill the pages of our history books, are spoken at countless awards ceremonies, and punctuate the daily news. Great leaders may enjoy fame and fortune, but there is one thing every leader, no matter how great, would be nothing without: followers.

By being a great follower, you can support values and missions you believe in, contribute to making change, earn respect, and even become a great leader yourself. So if leadership roles are not currently on your list of most desired jobs, proudly play up your gift of followership instead.

The following seven characteristics of great followers and tips on how to let them shine in an interview are meant to help you on your journey to the perfect job. Please use the interview tips with care. If a tip doesn’t fit you, find a different strategy for that characteristic that does.

Characteristics of Great Followers & How to Embody Them in an Interview

1. Empathic

Great followers are empathic: they understand the emotional needs and feelings of those around them. Followers may have to roll with the punches as a leader pursuing a challenging mission may experience high and low moods and affect those around them. A great follower may help a leader rise up out of a low mood through encouragement.

Interview Tip to Show Empathy: When the conversation turns to listing your strengths, mention to the hiring manager that you consider yourself very emotionally intelligent. Give an example of a time the team you last worked with was struggling with bad news about a project or the company, and illustrate how you led them out of it.

2. Principled

It takes a principled person to be a skilled follower because good followers are not “Yes Men.” The follower must have their own set of values that guide how they perceive the leader’s mission. They must know when to agree and when advise against a strategy.

Interview Tip to Show Principled Behavior: Tell an anecdote about a time you may have received validation for being principled. One example could be having your opinion validated by your superior when they changed a project direction because of something you pointed out. Later, the project turned about better for taking your advice.

3. Humble

Great followers must be content with often not drawing the spotlight even when they have contributed a lot to a project. Being a great follower means always lifting your leader up in order to present a strong and unified front. The more you do this, however, the greater your worth will appear in the eyes of the leader.

Interview Tip to Show Humble Nature: Although an interview is a time to highlight your strengths and moments of triumph, make sure to showcase your humility, too, by being polite and speaking well of your previous supervisor. Also write a sincere thank you note post-interview thanking the interviewer for meeting with you.

4. Ambitious

Ambition might be a primary trait of leaders but a great follower must have a healthy dose of their own. Without ambition, the long hours and daily grind will turn a follower into a senseless robot dully following orders. Ambition is what inspires great followers day after day and one day might guide them to be leaders themselves.

Interview Tip to Show Ambition: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” This question has reverberated in meeting rooms again and again across the country and throughout time. Here’s where you show the interviewer that you plan to be continuing your dutiful work on the strategic mission of the company in five years.

Do your homework before you come in for an interview and make sure you know where the company is headed and that you have a shared interest in that goal. Then, take time to think about what you would like to have accomplished toward that goal by then. This is what you will tell the interviewer.

5. Obedient

You must be obedient as a great follower. Simply put: know how to follow orders with enthusiasm and endurance.

Interview Tip to Show Obedience: One way to show obedience is to show that you fit in with the company culture and are therefore compliant to practices that were instituted before you came.

To show this, make an effort to research the company culture beforehand. Fitting in could mean dressing and carrying yourself a certain way or talking about certain things. A humorous and exaggerated example is shown in this Schick Xtreme 3 commercial.

You also might mention things you noticed about the company culture and how they excite you. Does the company have a dartboard where employees relieve stress? You might share that you think the company seems fun.

6. Loyal

Great followers are reliable, trustworthy, or in other words loyal to their leader. A leader needs to have followers around them who are there for the long haul. Workplace loyalty is declining in America, which makes loyalty in employees an attractive selling point.

A loyal follower also highlights the positive characteristics in their leader in public and saves constructive criticism for private. James Higa, described by many as Steve Jobs’s right hand man, recently had the opportunity for a tell-all on his relationship with Jobs. Instead of airing secrets, Higa showed true loyalty by answering the interviewer’s prying questions with this statement: "I'm a bit sensitive to people taking advantage of Steve's death and their closeness to him," (The Right-Hand Man Of Steve Jobs Has Broken His Silence, Business Insider).

Interview Tip to Show Loyalty: Build trust with the hiring manager by taking a friendly interest in what they do outside of the office as well as in it. Try doing this before the interview begins by dropping them a nonphysical compliment, asking them if they have any interesting trips coming up, or even talking about the weather.

To appear reliable, answer email correspondence from the company within an hour when possible.

7. Courageous

As Derek Sivers once said in a Ted Talk while playing a video of a man dancing wildly alone at a music festival, “The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.” As the video shows, the lone man is eventually joined by hundreds of people who dance with him. They join after a few brave first followers mirror the man’s wild style.

Although the lone man will most likely be given credit for the movement, the first followers were as essential as he was. Additionally, they showed courage as they could have been seen as nuts themselves.

Interview Tip to Show Courage: Show courage by bringing up something the company or leader did that was different and risky and talk about how you were inspired by it or wished you could have been a part of it.

Great Followers Become Great Leaders

“If you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower.” (Michael Hyatt)

It’s an interesting phenomenon, but those who have mastered being great followers seem to make the best leaders. Once you embody the seven characteristics of a great follower and are mentored by a great leader for long enough, the gap in traits you need to be a leader yourself starts to close.

There are many ways followers transition to leaders, whether through being promoted up through the company or by being entrusted with so much that you become a public face of the company in your own right.

One thing is certain, though, wherever you end up on your journey, there is never a shortage of employment for great followers.

Holly DePalma is a Senior Consultant with PI Midlantic, a leadership development consulting firm based in Annapolis, Maryland. PI Midlantic’s consultants aid businesses in hiring and with other stages of employee development using the Predictive Index System, Wonderlic test, and more.