The Leadership Lie: Why and How to Recruit Followers

“Leadership is alluring because the mere mention of it implies prestige and power. We have forgotten how to be led, how to listen, and how to be collaborative. Leadership can often be minimized to a medium of ambition and achievement, but what happens when there are too many leaders, too much power, too much ego? What is accomplished then? We need to develop a level of discernment and flexibility as leaders where we understand when our leadership is needed and when it is most advantageous for the best outcome for us to be led instead.” — Janine Dennis, founder and CEO of Talent Think Innovations 

Recent McKinsey research shows that 82% of Fortune 500 executives don’t believe that their companies recruit highly talented people. Many leaders blame that on external factors like the economy or their talent acquisition team’s inability to do a good job. 

But what if the problem is that we aren’t actually recruiting the people we need because we are instead recruiting the people we think we need? 

The Leadership Lie

Most companies think they want “leaders.” So much so that they spend $366 billion a year on leadership development training to increase top-rated leadership skills like coaching, communication, employee engagement, strategic, planning, and business acumen. Meanwhile, despite such significant investments, the single greatest cause of voluntary employee turnover is people wanting to get away from a bad boss.

The truth is that companies don’t actually want true leaders. Leaders are naturally skeptical, questioning, probably difficult to manage, and like working on their own ideas. What’s more, “real leaders usually don’t even want to be managers in organizations because they can have a much larger impact if they are mentors, start their own companies, or spend time outside of work being active members of their communities,” explains Matt Charney, leader of recruitment solutions and strategy at QuantumWork. 

“The word ‘lead’ itself is often a lie,” adds Katrina Kibben, founder & CEO of recruitment marketing consultancy Three Ears Media. “We’re really looking for people to execute projects, not lead anything.” Which explains why managers make terrible mentors and why people need mentors who aren’t their boss.

At the same time, if you’re consistently hiring people based on leadership criteria, then your teams will be doomed to fail. You cannot have an effective team composed entirely of leaders. We all know what happens when there are “too many cooks….” 

I think it’s about time we stop trying to recruit who we think are “leaders” and focus on hiring folks with often overlooked sets of skills. Skills like “low ego.” Skills like “works well with others.” Skills that are reminiscent of — dare I say! — followers. 

Focusing on Followers

What is a follower? Let’s start there. The dictionary definition is “one in service of another.” If we’re being honest here, considering that every single employee — including the CEO — is in service of the organization, wouldn’t that mean everyone is technically a follower? 

Now, before you get super-offended, why don’t we look at what hiring more followers would mean for our workplaces.  

A not-so-recent Business Insider article mentions that “good followers can put their own egos aside and do what you want done, whether or not they think it’s the right thing to do.” They can “put their creativity to work, not in setting grand visions, but instead by finding better and faster ways to do what you want done.” And, no matter how smart they are, “they still trust that you know how they can best apply their brains and talents for the greater good.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? 

With all that in mind, how would we even go about finding followers?

Employer Branding to Attract Followers

One of the strongest employer (or overall) branding techniques is to speak to and through your company’s culture and values. Setting a core value related to teamwork and collaboration (i.e., think this) can be a great way to incorporate followership into your talent attraction messaging. This will allow people who have follower qualities and skills to feel comfortable in taking a back seat and working as part of a team. 

Through this value, make sure to showcase the importance of this role as a part of a team, show people who are happy in this position, and highlight what a career path for someone with follower tendencies could look like. After all, just because someone is a follower doesn’t mean they should be in the same position forever.

Job Descriptions That Appeal to Followers 

Job descriptions are a perfect place to tell job-seekers what kinds of candidates you are looking for. Many companies use job descriptions as a way to attract candidates who they believe are leaders. Do the same with followers with descriptors like “works well as part of a team,” “stable growth,” “great at following directions,” “someone who can put their head down and get stuff done.” 

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Screen In Followers, Weed Out Leaders 

Since the 1980s, organizations have designed hiring processes based on what candidates have done and not who they are. This has led to screening processes based on past experience and credentials. 

Lately, there’s been a greater emphasis on pre-hire assessments to look beyond resumes and a candidate’s past to understand more about their potential. Charney mentioned that using pre-hire assessments to pinpoint candidates that exhibit personality traits of a follower could be a great way for companies to understand their applicants. In practice, someone scoring high on agreeableness — associated with trust, kindness, and affection — on a Big 5 personality test could be described more as a follower than a leader.

The Right Interview Questions

Another great way to determine followership (or leadership) aptitude, desires, and capabilities is during the interview process. Asking behavioral or even direct questions related to leadership, leadership experience, and management can be very telling. 

Founder and CEO of Jumpstart:HR, Joey Price mentions simple questions like, “Do you like to lead? Give an example.” This can be an easy way to determine whether someone wants to be in a position of leadership. Or just plainly ask, “How do you feel about taking a backseat on projects?” This would help not only to assess the candidate’s abilities and interests but also help to de-stigmatize followership.

Meanwhile, founder and CEO of TrapRecruiter and ERE “Recruiter Realness” columnist Keirsten Greggs suggests asking follow-up questions like, “In a situation where there is a leader and a group of followers, how would you describe each?” Greggs explains that if they describe a follower as someone who is given a task, figures out the best way to do that task, and then helps others where they can to complete the project, “the person is more likely to be a team player because they understand the value of teamwork.”

At the end of the day, you want to hire great people in your organization. More than just people, you want to hire great teams in your organization. The truth is, not everyone is, can be, wants to be, or should be a leader. Even more, a team full of leaders won’t make for a great team.

At some point, you will have to decide: Do you want “leaders” or do you want functional teams? If you want great teams, then why let an arbitrary emphasis on leadership get in the way? 

It’s time for employers to hire for followership abilities.

Micole Garatti is the marketing manager at Talview, author of "The Most Inclusive HR Influencer List," and host of the #HRforAll Twitter chat. She is passionate about improving HR and talent acquisition through diversifying voices of influence within the profession and technology. She's appeared or been featured as an HR and marketing expert on DriveThruHR, Workology, Carnival of HR, #HRSocialHour, the SHRM blog, and more. Find her on Twitter at @socialmicole or at www.socialmicole.com.

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