#36: Dr Shaun Davis on The Role of Followership

My guest today is Dr Shaun Davis. Shaun is Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability at the Royal Mail Group, one of the world’s oldest postal services dating back over 500 years and employing over 160,000 people to deliver 58 million items per day across the UK. 

Shaun joined Royal Mail Group in 2012 and has since led improvements across a wide range of areas including accident prevention, employee attendance, wellbeing, physical and mental health.

I spoke to Shaun by phone from London.

We talk about how he can trace his passion for safety and worker welfare back to childhood with his father working in steel mills, how a strong sense of imposter syndrome throughout his career has led to him acquiring qualifications in a very deliberate and targeted way to build credibility and empathy with other functional and operational colleagues. We talk about how to drive change in large organisations by taking people along with you whilst giving them the space and time to make informed decisions for themselves, and we talk about the importance of professional and personal mission and how it creates a very powerful form of servant leadership.

Shaun has also kindly provided us with the guest blog article below.

‘Leadership’ and ‘Followership’ – two sides of the same coin?

“Leadership” continues to enjoy a ‘celebrity’ status in the world of training and is ‘in vogue’ especially in health & safety circles often buddied up with behavioural change initiatives – but what of followership – is this given the same air time?  From my experience, no.

There is an aspect of followership in all of us, even at the very top of organisations; presidents and prime ministers of democratic nations lead their countries, but they follow the will of the people, or they fall.

The mistaken credit of all successful outcomes to ‘leaders’ yields a mistaken belief that leaders matter and followers do not, even though research highlights that followers, not leaders, account for 80% of the success that organisations enjoy.

Of course organisations need both leaders and followers; in a hierarchical organisation, which most are, it is a truism that leaders and followers are sometimes one and the same person, but there are the inevitable complexities involved in juggling these two roles successfully.  Advocating and practising ‘responsible followership’, defined here as “the active engagement of individuals working within an organisation, demonstrating independent, critical judgement of goals, tasks and methodology” is a tall order.  Yet, it is one that most health & safety professional do on a daily basis, usually unwittingly and without any specific training in how to go about it.

We know now that leaders are not born to the role and that leadership can at least be learnt; moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that leadership is not an exclusive property of men and women holding high office but the emphasis is to be, and be seen to be, on leadership, rather than leaders themselves.  In this sense, the key point I am making is – what is expected more and more these days is leadership being practised, shared, at all levels of an organisation, rather than transmitted exclusively from the top down and that we all have our unique role to play,

So, what of followership.  This recent paradigm shift has implications for the responsibilities of the people lower down the chain.  Are they co-leaders or only the led? may be a moot point at certain levels of a chain-of-command; in an organisation where distributed leadership is practised, a greater awareness exists of the importance of social relations in the leader/follower compact.

In summary then, defining followership, as opposed to the term followers, is as difficult as defining leadership; both terms have complex, often personal meaning, bringing to mind different things to different people.  One marked difference between the two concepts, though, is that significantly more people have tried to define leadership, and the concept of followership has not yet gripped so many leadership scholars – why not pick up the subject yourself, you never know what you might find.

Tony Cooke

Tony Cooke is an internationally-recognised sustainability leader with over 25 years spent at the nexus of sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, developing and executing strategies for business, governments and not-for-profit organisations across a wide variety of sectors. He now manages a portfolio of interests including; senior corporate counsel, executive coaching, non-executive roles and thought leadership through a combination of research, writing and podcasting. Visit my personal blog at http://tonycooke.wordpress.com

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