Leading the New Followers

Our digital world is filled and re-filled continuously with ideas around what effective leaders should do, should never do, or should be. Whatever leadership style, philosophy or approach you aspire to, the one non-negotiable requirement is that in order to be a leader, you must generate followers. The characteristics of today’s followers are shifting significantly. Are your leadership skills ready?


The Boomers are moving on to re-invent whatever form of retirement that they see fit. The organizational structures that they are leaving behind are very similar to the ones that they worked in for years. However, the followers who will be residing within those structures are different in almost every way.


Robert Kelley’s extensive work on followership indicated that that there were several qualities that effective followers possessed. They included self-management, commitment, competence and courage. Now, if all of our followers possessed these attributes all of the time, we would spend much less time looking at the dynamics of effective leaders because they would be much less needed. However, Kelley also looked at how people behave in the work place and generated five types or patterns of followers. They include the sheep, the yes people, the pragmatics, the alienated and the star followers. The leadership skills and techniques that made you effective with the Boomers and Gen X followers will require some significant tweaking when you start working with Millenials and 21st Century Learners.


Attending a conference a few years ago, I was listening to a former university professor and psychologist speak about the theme of entitlement that ran through the young people and families that she works with. She said they all want to work less than their parents did and have a healthier, more balanced life style. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they also, however, wanted to be CEO by Friday. The leadership challenge within this thinking is how do you lead individuals and groups with such conflicting view of sacrifice and deferred gratification. You engage them!


Authors and researchers Neil Howe and Richard Strauss looked at the generational aspects of this age group and how they compare to their peers from different eras. In their book Millenials Rising, they indicate that individuals from this generation tend to be optimistic, cooperative team players, rule followers and respectful of authority. This seems like a rather optimistic outlook and somewhat counter to the self-absorbed, instant gratification themes we have been hearing and reading about. Howe and Strauss go on to say the … “ Millenial kids are challenging a long list of what ‘postmodern’ young people are supposed to become.”


Educational leaders are seeing a similar shift in their school environments as a generation of 21st Century leaners moves through and out into the work force. This group, who has had access to mobile technology since they were born, is redefining what a learner is. As these students move through our transforming school systems, they are becoming problem solvers, collaborators and constructors of their own learning. The “what” of today’s schooling is still determined by the educational jurisdiction, but the “how” is largely being decided and designed by the digital natives found within our classrooms. They are very comfortable finding their own path through a topic or problem and demonstrating their understanding in multiple ways.


How do leaders engage these new groups of employees that are significantly more adaptable, connected and mobile than any group that they have seen in the past? How can they create work environments that maintain high levels of growth, productivity and profitability?


Lateral Capacity Building

Exposing employees, particularly when they are young, to a variety of tasks and departments within an organization is not a new concept. It is a proven means of deepening someone’s skill set and level of understanding of the scope of how your business or organization runs. Your new followers are very adaptable and aware of how they learn best. They are more interested and less intimidating when faced with new things and new environments. Will they love it all? Absolutely not! They will likely share with you what they do and do not like and maybe even ways you could improve certain areas. If you have a new follower that starts to generate ideas about how to improve something they do not like, you know you are on the right track.


Clarified Objectives

Your new followers are multi-taskers and they are good at it. They can work effectively on several things simultaneously. Whether it is a specific project, or part of their daily work, be sure they have a good understanding of what their objectives or deliverables are.


With lots of competing interests and focuses, the end product of their work could get lost in the shuffle. Having clearly communicated priorities that your followers can access as they navigate and problem-solve through their daily work and projects will assist greatly in keeping their eyes on the prize. The ultimate goal is for them to self manage, so be sure they have the tools.


Collaborative Environments

Striking a balance between collaboration and personal responsibility can be challenging. Your working environments do not have to consist of teams one hundred percent of the time. However, the level of connectivity between your new followers is already quite high, why not utilize it. Twenty first century learners are used to working and creating in collaborative environments. Creating solutions or generating ideas is something that they will likely do better in a small group than in isolation. Play to their strengths. Within your organizational structure, build in the means and the motivation to work together. Remember, however, constant collaboration is not for everyone. Within your group of new followers, you will have some introverts. In order to maximize their potential, you will need be sure they have time, quieter spaces and opportunities to contribute on an individual level. Susan Cain’s book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, (@susancain) will give you lots of insight and strategies on how to lead a quiet revolution. It is not about building the capacity of all of your employees, it is about building the capacity of each of your employees.



As your employees will acquire and apply many new skill sets during their time with you, as their leader, so must you. The work environments that they will create over the next twenty years will feel significantly different than the ones that you lived and learned in when you were getting started. What is your level of connectivity? What are your preferred methods of communication? How are your social media skills? This does not mean learning about the latest technology, app, or online tool. It does mean knowing how you learn best, knowing how to choose and filter through massive amounts of content, knowing what new innovations will be of best use to you, and recognizing and utilizing leverage points for your leadership skills and your organization. Many of your new followers will arrive with these skills already in place.


The changing demographics of the workplace will impact many aspects of your leadership practice, with the exception of one: the importance of relationships. Regardless of who your followers are, relationships are the means by which your leadership skills, good or bad, are delivered. The new followers will make you reflect on how these relationships are built and maintained. Understanding your leadership context is vital. Like a good writer, or an actor on the stage, you must know your audience. As an organizational leader, your audience is changing. Are you ready?


Mike MacDonald

Cochrane, Alberta