Why novice nurses should embrace their role as a follower, not a leader
Dec 13, 2021, By: Jessica Marton
“Every nurse is a leader.” “To be successful as a nurse, you have to have leadership qualities.” After graduating from nursing school and starting my first job in an urban hospital, these phrases, which I heard repeatedly in school, kept floating around in my head.
As a novice nurse, I worried how I would be able to fulfil the role of a leader. I remembered learning about leadership concepts that emphasized how to be a successful nurse leader in almost every nursing course in my undergraduate program.
Around the same time that I was adapting to the role of RN, I also started taking graduate leadership courses in which I was introduced to the concept of “followership.” I came to the realization, after exploring the followership literature, that the concept of followership was just as important as leadership. This knowledge allowed me to understand why I felt uncomfortable as a new graduate expected “to lead” seasoned nurses on a clinical unit where I had minimal experience. I started to realize that although I had been taught how to assume the role of a leader, I was ill-prepared to fulfil my role as a follower.
After reflecting on this knowledge deficit and its impact on my transition to becoming an independent practising nurse, I felt that I might be able to help new graduates by sharing some things I learned about followership. My hope is that this knowledge will help them avoid some angst and allow them to assume the role of follower or leader in their transition to becoming a confident nurse.
Successful followers also have competencies that they must learn.
This is a summary of the things that I learned about followership:
- We are taught leadership competencies, but successful followers also have competencies that they must learn. There are tools to help you assess and improve your followership skills. For example, The Predictive Index has an excellent resource outlining how great leaders can inspire followership.
- Good followers demonstrate initiative, self-motivation, commitment, honesty, and are goal oriented. We are taught that these are the attributes of leaders, but good leaders and followers share similar characteristics.
- There are different types of followers. There can be toxic, courageous, and exemplary followers. Exemplary followers are best to have on the nursing team because they contribute to a healthy work environment and high-quality patient care.
- Acting as a follower is a role. It does not mean you are abandoning your role as leader. In many work situations, and especially as a new nurse, you are in a follower role. The experience you will gain will help you decide the roles required in specific situations or circumstances.
- The follower role is as important as the leadership role. Both roles contribute to an organization’s outcomes and to a healthy work environment. Without followers, there is no one for leaders to lead (and therefore no leader).
- The first step in being a competent leader is to be a competent follower. Remember that your manager was once a new grad nurse and, like you, in a follower role.
- Your role as a follower or leader is dynamic. You will be required to move back and forth between roles. For example, you will assume a leadership role when you work as the charge nurse, but you may be in more of a follower role when you work as a staff nurse. Your nurse manager is in a leadership role with you on the unit but in a follower role when working with the chief nursing executive.
- Teamwork requires two roles — a leader and team members (followers). Some conflict in teamwork can be attributed to misunderstanding this distinction.
- Finally, I suggest that as a new graduate, you reflect on what is expected in each situation and ask, what is my role? As a follower, you support the leader, speak up if you see a problem, and contribute to the team’s goals.
I hope that you will find this information useful and take pride in the essential role of follower as you enter practice.