Effective Followership

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By Kirk McCarley

Leadership. Endless literature exists about the subject.  What characteristics constitute the makeup of those who direct others?

While we may each be leaders or managers in some capacity, the fact is all of us function in some role of support: to those who may have elected or appointed us, to a board, to a supervisor, to a customer, to a spouse, to a parent.

  • For what would a quarterback be without an offensive line?
  • Starting pitchers without relievers?
  • Diana Ross minus the Supremes?
  • The Lone Ranger and no Tonto?
  • A Pastor without a congregation?

An effective follower subordinates their ego for the betterment of the whole. It is the vision and mission of the leader that constitutes the framework for the work that the follower executes, provided that that direction is safe, lawful, ethical, and subscribes to the policies and values of the organization. In those instances where it falls short of these boundaries, effective followership requires sincere and sometimes bold counsel. Our 34th President, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, was one of six brothers.  Although all were close, a special bond formed between the oldest, Ike, and the youngest, Milton. Milton, who established in his own right a successful career in the federal government in Washington, became an important counsel when his brother served as President.  A 1953 Reader’s Digest Article reported that, “Ike especially relied on Milton for help in his dealings with the federal bureaucracy, because ‘few men know more than Milton Eisenhower knows about the vast mechanism of our federal government.’”

For 35 years Ed McMahon served as sidekick to the icon of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson. Carson was a famously demanding star, yet McMahon had the ability to massage that ego while at the same time not compromise his own values. McMahon even took advantage of the opportunity to carve out his own independent career as the voice for several national products and host of the syndicated series, Star Search. Though Ed McMahon was not immune to personal setbacks of his own, he rather successfully navigated an assignment that lesser men would not have survived. Good followers prepare themselves should it become necessary to ascend into a leadership role. Wally Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees from 1915-1924.  He was one of the finest players of those ten years, leading the American League in several statistical categories. In 1922 he scouted a young ballplayer out of Columbia University and suggested the Yankees sign him. That youngster not only was a backup first baseman to Pipp, but a student of the game to the veteran.


On June 2, 1925 Pipp reported to the ballpark with a headache.  His manager advised him to take a rest and prepare to be back in the lineup the next day.  Pipp was never to appear again as the Yankees first baseman. For the next 2,130 games that position was occupied by his follower, Lou Gehrig. Good followers observe and learn.  As they gain confidence they volunteer for assignments and later more difficult jobs. They are respectful, yet also possess the courage to call their leadership out if necessary. They are patient. They prepare themselves for a leadership role should it present itself. And then, when they become a leader they remember what it was like to be a follower and have empathy for those then following them. Who do you follow?  What character traits do they possess making them worthy to be followed?

With more than 30 years of executive leadership experience in both public and private sector environments, Kirk McCarley assists others in pursuing career and personal transitions.  A graduate of the University of North Texas, Kirk is a Certified Professional Coach as well as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR).  He also is a Production Assistant for both college football and basketball for ESPN and leads group cycling classes as a Certified Spinning Instructor.

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