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Episode 10 – Ruth Sims

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#SeriouslySocial The Podcast

with Simone Douglas and special guest Ruth Sims

Our guest this episode is researcher Ruth Sims from UniSA. She chats with Simone about her research into the phenomenon of followership, about how to empower your colleagues, and about the relationship between leaders and followers.

Special guest: Ruth Sims

Check out our page for updates and teasers about upcoming episodes,

Hosted by Simone Douglas

Videography by Marie Carbone

Audio by Chris Irving

Music used in this episode is “Alte Herren” by KieLoKaz, used with permission under a Creative Commons Licence This production is protected by a creative commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence.

Chris Irving 0:00
Welcome to the Seriously Social podcast with your host, Simone Douglas. Our guest this episode is researcher Ruth Sims from Uni SA. She chats with Simone about her research into the phenomenon of followership about how to empower your colleagues, and about the relationship between leaders and followers.

Simone Douglas 0:21
So today, on the Seriously Social podcast, I’m joined by Ruth Sims who’s currently completing a PhD at Uni SA and associated with the Centre for Workplace Excellence. And I am super excited to have Ruth here because she’s going to talk to us about a concept that I had never heard of before I had a conversation with her a couple of months ago, and that is followership, so can you just give us the cliff notes version of what that is?

Ruth Sims 0:49
Well, we think we know a lot about leaders and leadership, we assume and I would start in the leader place because people are comfortable there and followership people kind of go, You what, can you say that again? So we, we’ve got an idea that we know what leaders do in organisations, but we know very little about what followers do and what for good followership is. We assume that people kind of know how to follow. We assume that it’s might be the same as being a good employee, and it’s not, it’s more than that. It’s about what do, what does followership bring to the relationship with leaders and leadership? And if someone’s leading, what does following look like, and how do you make that really good so that what’s happening in an organisation is the best possible work that it can be and the best possible relationship. And it’s a lot more fluid when we think of leaders. Still, very often, we’ve got a kind of old fashioned notion, the leaders are very special people, they do very special things to other people. Hopefully, we’re moving water with other people, but what fascinates me about followership is what are those people doing and what do they think they’re doing when they’re following? So it’s not imposing a view on people engaged in followership, it’s finding out what that is for the people who are doing it, and it’s then very fluid, so leading and following is not connected, necessarily to a roll, to a position in a hierarchy, it’s about different sorts of behaviours that relate to each other and together, do good things in the workplace.

Simone Douglas 2:34
So when you say different sorts of behaviours, what kinds of behaviors which identify as one or the other, and that’s a broad question.

Ruth Sims 2:41
Yeah. And the really interesting thing is that often when we start seeing people in, you know, in a leadership relationship, doing good followership, we go, oh, they’re proactive. They’re, they’re thinking for themselves. They’re showing leadership. You immediately, we jump there, and I’m kind of going, No, let’s just hold on to followership for a while, because what I think I’m finding through the interviews that I’ve done, and what I’m hoping to test in terms of a survey shortly, is that followership seems to have a couple of dimensions to it, there are two key bits. One of those is about deference, so it’s about stepping back and allowing the leader to lead. And the other bit of that is about support, and so that’s about stepping up, and helping the leader do what they’re doing. And then those two things don’t have to be connected to a role, and in fact, in a lot of really healthy relationships, they’ll move.

Simone Douglas 3:53
They’re interchangeable.

Ruth Sims 3:54
Absolutely, but followership is not just leadership, find and replace, it is doing something that supports that relationship and that dynamic, and it can tip over into leadership. And leaders may step back, and you’ll have seen in in meetings, even quite formal meetings, somebody chairs, the meeting, and others in the room allow that person to do that. It’s not that they couldn’t do it, but some of them might do it better. But they allow, they allow that to happen in order for the work to be done, and I think it’s that kind of, it’s those kind of activities that are really interesting.

Yeah. So if as a I guess a business owner and someone that manages people a lot and engages with people a lot, I think for me, one of the things that I find fascinating about the concept of followership is that I tend to cultivate that quite naturally these days. If I go back to my 20s, I would have been awful at it. I was very good at being a directive leader that says, ‘You will do this, why haven’t you done this what’s happening.’ Whereas these days you know, I’ve taken on board, probably reading too many business books, and God knows what else but, you know, I like to hear what all of the team has to say, and I’m very aware if I haven’t heard somebodies voice, because you know what you were saying before in terms of people stepping up and supporting the outcomes for the organisation or otherwise, you know, it’s often about making sure that every voice voice is heard, to build that cohesion so that then they’re all happy to follow me because they’ve all spoken their peace. But you know, what, what are some of the challenges perhaps to the more egocentric leader, if they’re looking to cultivate healthy followership or you know, one that is good for the organisation?

I think that being prepared to listen to other voices is really important, and the the folk that I interviewed, one of the questions I asked was, ‘Have you always thought about followership the same way, or was there a turning point for you?’ And quite often, people could point to a turning point, and very often it was when they were in their first formal leadership role, and all of a sudden they had to think differently about how that would work and watch what they had to do well as a leader, but also what they had to do well as a follower. So it is about when you’re in a leadership role allowing that space and being curious, I think and really wanting to know. From a followership perspective, it’s really active, so it’s not about even necessarily waiting to be asked, although some people will, wait need to wait you need to be asked. But it is about actually being quite active in that relationship in that role, and providing that either when it’s required or when it’s asked for. So there’s the notion of courageous followership, which has been around for a long time, but it’s and Ira Chaleff is the person who really named this and popularised it, and it’s that notion that being a follower is, is about being very active, and sometimes about saying and doing things that in that moment the leader doesn’t necessarily want. And I think being a good leader is about allowing space for that, because it’s not about leader and follower as much as it’s about leadership and followership.

Simone Douglas 7:34
That totally makes sense to me, and I think, you know, sometimes in our office, we jokingly call those moments career limiting moves, but it’s because we know that they’re not really, and I think, the challenge for a leader, particularly an egocentric one, that’s maybe still developing some EQ and learning how to be exceptional, is about understanding that your voice doesn’t have to be the loudest, in fact, you will be more successful if it’s not, because I think then you create that space for the rest of your team, and then from their perspective, they feel empowered then to use their brains. And like you were saying, so step up in their own ways, and do their own things, contributing to where we’re all going. And there’s this really magical thing that I find happens in teams, in all of my businesses, usually at about the three year mark, I don’t know why, so I’ll start a business and I suppose because the first 12 months is ridiculously painful when you’re kind of flat out, and the second 12 months, you kind of find your feet going, what am I doing wrong, what can I do better, but the three year mark, it’s, I tend to get to this place where I literally just open up the doors, and I’m like now, now, now, I need to know from all of you guys, how do we go where we’re going? How do we get there? What haven’t I thought about what, you know, all of these kinds of things, and I had a really fun day with the team at the Duke of Brunswick on Monday because I asked them to do two exercises. So I said, you know, let’s start with the positives, I want you to write down the four attributes that you think every member of the team has to have, okay, so you have to be able to exhibit all four of those in order to work here so that, you know, they came up with like 20 words and we eventually got down to four, and that was all very nice and you know, fairly common exercise and I said right write down the four words that you think if if somebody applying for a job here, exhibits even one of them, I’m not going to be allowed to hire them. So write down the four things, whatever those four things are. And you know, they got to things like, you know, negative attitude, lazy, you know, excuse culture, all these kinds of things, so I had the four words, and then I said to them, okay, in the last week of you doing your job in the last week, you know of the pub I want you to think about those four negative words, I want you to personally give yourself a score based on how many times you exhibited one of those characteristics that you’ve said, I can’t hire somebody if they exhibit even one, and everyone went very quiet, but I said to my staff, so you know, I can’t measure that I can’t hold you to account on that the only person that can do that is you. But yeah, it was just it was a fascinating way of like, kind of flipping it on their head, because I’ve seen, I’ve seen the change since then, as well. So one of the things that I found fascinating about that process is like when you see that aha moment drop for all of them, and then they know what they’re doing, then it’s like, I have to get out of their way at that point. Because …

Ruth Sims 10:45
Yep, and I think that common purpose is really important. So you know, that classic definition of leadership, it’s influencing others to achieve a common purpose. Well, it is. And the common purpose is absolutely vital in an organisation, but it’s also that being able to relax enough so you’re not the hero leader. And I think, for a lot of people who take on leadership roles, their real aha moment is when they go, I don’t have to know all the answers all the time about everything. And that’s a real relief, because nobody can, you know, it is far too complicated for one person to be in that role constantly. And so what you’re describing with your team is, is a leader who’s able to relax enough to allow others to show leadership and for a group of people who are often in followership roles are able to pick up leadership, which means you’re flipping into a followership that’s state at times, and I think if we move away from that, the heroic notion of leadership, we get a lot closer to leadership which encorporates followership, and it is about relationships in order to do whatever it is that the organisation is intended for.

Simone Douglas 12:16
Absolutely. And I think it’s one of those things too, that I will I could be wrong, because I haven’t been to uni for a very long time. But you know, they don’t we don’t have enough robust conversations about these things in business school. I don’t think unless something’s changed in the last 10 years.

Ruth Sims 12:35
My mission is to bring followership in.

Simone Douglas 12:36
Yeah, I think that that’s really important, because if you know when we were having the conversation a couple months ago, and you said, I’m researching followership, I’m like, ‘What’s that?’ Because, again, it’s that for me, it was almost evangelical, in terms of, you know, the concept of, you can’t have a leader, if you don’t have followers, and vice versa, and a healthy workplace culture will mean that they are fluid and interchangeable, and many people will step into either role, or both and. So how do you think the followers can support cultivating a leader that allows those things to take place?

Ruth Sims 13:23
I think sometimes as followers, we can be really tough on leaders, and I think often when we do that, as followers, we forget that actually, as follows, we hold the power. So we often, and in business school we’re taught that, you know, the leader is terribly important and has access to all these resources and is able to, you know, distribute them and that you know, that makes a leader powerful. Well, there’s there is some real truth in that, but a leader doesn’t lead without followers and followers choose to follow. So I think often followers can be really hard on leaders, expect too much of them and expect them to be heroic when followers are not prepared to be active participants. It’s much easier to sit back to hat’s happening over there. If you take followership seriously, you’re in there and you’re committed and you’re doing and it’s very active, and it’s very powerful, which is a challenge to those more egocentric leaders. But in terms of where you see organisations and teams and organisations working well, that tends to be what you see. So yeah, I think followers do need, being supportive is not being a doormat.

Simone Douglas 14:56
Yeah, no, absolutely, and that’s a great concept too. I think is in our society, we’re often told, you know, nice guys finish last, you know, and that whole doormat concept. And it’s like, you can’t be a nice human being and look after your own needs at the same time, there’s always kind of like different societal undertones that happen, but it’s been my experience that you know, working within a team environment, whether it’s as the leader or as, as a follower, just remember that all of the people are human beings, and so, you know, yes, I might have been a bit short with you today, but that’s because I didn’t sleep last night, because I had to stand down 10 of my staff thanks to COVID, or whatever it might be. Or, you know, I know that I have a tough conversation, because I have to ask my team to take a pay cut for like the foreseeable future. You know, so business owners and leaders, they have all of these different pressures, but we don’t share them and we don’t talk about them enough, I think, which doesn’t empower our followers to actually support us because they don’t understand, so I think that there’s a huge opportunity, when you’re prepared to, as a leader, be seen and be vulnerable and be honest, then that opens the gateway for your followers to really step up and actively participate and support you because they know what’s going on.

Ruth Sims 16:25
And it may then be that the followers you don’t want in your team, other folk who go Just tell me what to do. They may they they may be perfect in another environment, but they may not be the followers that you need in this environment now. So I think leaders and followers do choose each other to a certain extent, there are organisations that are much more hierarchical. They’re not going to have the sort of leadership and followership that you’re describing, so there’s probably a little bit of self selection happens there as well.

Simone Douglas 17:01
So if we wanted to read more about what you have to say about followership, or keep track of your research as it’s getting released, where would we go find all those things?

Ruth Sims 17:13
At the moment, I don’t have anything published, but I’m at I’m active on LinkedIn, so I tend to publish blog posts, small opinion pieces on there, and I’ll certainly make the academic work available through that as well. That’s probably a good place to be at the moment.

Simone Douglas 17:31
Fantastic. Well Ruth, thanks very much for joining me on the red chairs. Thoroughly enjoyed our chat, and we’ll make sure that we share your LinkedIn profile link when we released the podcast.

Ruth Sims 17:41
Thank you so much. It’s been good.

Chris Irving 17:45
Thank you for listening to the seriously social podcast. See our website for more details at Check the show notes for credits, music used in the program and more details about our guests.



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