Who Said Followership Was Easy?

Throughout my summer internship with AlphaSights, I have noticed the different types of exchanges between leaders and followers. I am fortunate to work closely with both my Manager and Global Vice President — I sit between both of them on the desk — allowing me insights to both their roles while being mindful of my daily responsibilities and contributions. David Messick’s observations on the leader-follower exchange in his article “On the Psychological Exchange Between Leaders and Followers” illustrates my experience working as a follower to different leaders at AlphaSights, and ultimately suggests followers have power and can be more important to a business than its leaders.

Messick analyzes the leader-follower relationship and concludes leadership and followership is an equal exchange of psychological services and benefits. According to Messick, leaders give followers vision and direction, protection and security, achievement and effectiveness, inclusion and belongingness, and pride and self-respect (Messick 2005). As a result, followers give leaders focus and self-direction, gratitude and loyalty, commitment and effort, cooperation and sacrifice, and respect and obedience (Messick 2005). Messick highlights that the leader-follower exchange is contingent on “the integrity of the leader… The reciprocity works when the leader is seen as sincere and motivated by benevolence, by the interests of the group. If the leader is seen as self-interested… his or her actions will appear false, hypocritical, and manipulative,” destroying the exchange and balance between a leader and their followers (Messick 95, 2005). Therefore, when a leader is perceived as fair and honest by followers and the leader supports and effectively guides followers, followers respond with devotion, hard work to realize a goal, and endorsement of their leader.

My work experience suggests Messick’s leader-follower exchange theory is valid both on paper and in practice. At AlphaSights, my Manager gives our team daily, weekly, and quarterly vision and direction. She supports us during difficult days and defends our team from outside concerns and comments. My Manager highlights when someone does an excellent job on a project or in operational work, and provides both positive reinforcement and constructive feedback. She ensures everyone on the team feels welcome and helps them find a place if they struggle to create one on their own. She also gives us pride in our work and in the fact we work on the Client Protection team.

Similarly, my Global Vice President provides the same five components of leadership but at a higher company big-picture level. My Global Vice President provides our team quarterly and annual vision and direction, achievement and effectiveness, and pride and self respect as she reports our team’s good work to the company co-founders and celebrates our success. She also protects and defends our team during her meetings with the company co-founders to ensure they truly understand our team’s work and prevents the co-founders from assigning us responsibilities that would not be a good fit for our team.

In response to all the Client Protection leaders do for our team, I notice myself and my colleagues focus and self-direct ourselves in our daily and quarterly operational project work, we give gratitude and loyalty to our leaders, we commit to achieving our leader’s goals and act wholeheartedly to advance the team, we cooperate with one another and sacrifice our personal needs for the needs of the team, and respect and obey our leaders because we trust they act with integrity, authenticity, and kindness.

Before beginning my internship, I believed leaders were the most central and critical component to a successful business. I was convinced all it took to run a legitimate company was good leaders — after all, our culture values and celebrates leaders and teaches individuals success correlates with leadership in a company. However, after working for eight weeks, I am beginning to think followership and carrying out a leader’s vision is sometimes more important and challenging than leadership itself. The Associates on my team work incredibly hard; while our hours are 8 A.M. until 6 P.M, most stay late daily without hesitation or complaining to complete their work to the best of their abilities. We handle concerns from clients, advisors, and other AlphaSights Associates, and are directly engaged in the company’s deliverables and services. We also manage our leaders’ expectations by understanding their vision inside and out to create the best deliverable for the company. I am exhausted by the end of every day and drained by the end of every week, and despite my fatigue I still love what I do and persist, suggesting the supreme value of good followers to any organization.

Followership is just as challenging as leadership, but in a different way. Followers bear the heavy burden of enacting a leader’s vision day in and day out and relying on one another to succeed when the leader is not present. Working on the front lines of the company, we see and learn so much that our leaders are far removed from, making our observations and feedback invaluable to leaders. While leaders create a vision, followers are trusted to work and succeed in making an ideal a reality, which begs the question: why do we not celebrate good followership equally to good leadership, and why do we think followership is so easy? I certainly don’t think being a follower is simple or straightforward after my experience with AlphaSights, and Messick’s theory highlights the importance of followers to a leader’s success and legitimacy through his equal exchange of  benefits between leader and follower.