Hiring leaders vs. followers: the spectrum

Last updated:
December 16, 2020
December 22, 2021
min read
Adrie Smith
|what to consider when hiring leaders
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Hiring leaders has become the gold standard practice in recruitment. Leadership roles need talented individuals with a certain amount of moxie, gusto, and gregariousness.

“Every [h]iring manager I talk to describes wanting to hire someone with leadership skills (specifically: executive presence, ability to influence, comfort speaking with all levels, coaching/mentoring)…” – @eastsidestaff

It’s pervasive to the point that employers almost always include “people skills” in job descriptions. When you think of “soft skills”, things like teamwork and leadership are at the top of the list. Outspoken, energetic candidates are generally more desirable than reserved candidates. But why is that? And is it necessary to categorize candidates into good and bad buckets based on their extraversion and ability to display that verbally and non-verbally?

It depends.

Leaders vs. followers in the workplace

Hiring leaders can certainly have its perks. Especially if you are hiring a team lead or a similar leadership role, someone with the right personality to get the job done is a no-brainer. However, how many candidates would actually admit to not possessing people skills?

“Anyone who is elbows deep in a task or role can best tell you how to improve its efficiency or impact, and it takes leadership to voice it.” – @RachelMooreRS

Voicing opinions in the workplace is a crucial part of company growth. But aren’t there other ways of getting your point across without shouting it at the top of your lungs? Rosa Parks, for example, made a most-memorable opposition due to the fact that she was rarely boisterous. When she did speak up, it was with extreme purpose. This is brought to light in her autobiography, “Quiet Strength” and used as an example in Susan Cain’s “Quiet”. Susan also points out that “quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

Although the term “leader” has a positive connotation and hiring leaders can be beneficial in the right circumstance, it doesn’t mean that a “follower” is any less capable. In fact, it may be in your best interest to hire a follower from time to time. A plethora of different personalities and communication styles can work well in an office environment with open communication and workflow. But how do you determine when hiring leaders is the right choice?

Which is preferable to hire?

Innately, for leaders to exist, followers must also exist. Hiring leaders is admirable, but what happens if you end up with an office full of talkers and no thinkers? Leaders tend to push forward without wasting time on doubt and uncertainty. However, risk-taking like this can have its downfalls. Followers can be assets to a business in that they are more likely to contemplate a decision before taking action or speaking up.

“They [followers] tend to be the calm in the storm, and we don’t value them enough.” – @traciespon
“The idea of being a ‘follower’ tends to have a negative connotation because it suggests that you go with the flow. However, without followers there are no leaders. The question is, do you know who or what you are following and why?” – @andrewgobran

Just because you’re able to talk the talk, walk the walk, and probably shout something the loudest, it doesn’t mean you know what you are talking about. It’s a common misconception that extroverts and people that speak up should always be listened to. Following blindly isn’t the preferable type of following here. Hire leaders, and also hire followers that show the ability to think critically and take action when it really matters.

Similar to introversion and extraversion, follower- and leader-types seem to fall along a spectrum. There are scales intended to measure levels of introversion and extraversion. Is it time that we create the follower-leader scale?

what to consider when hiring leaders
What to consider when hiring leaders

The follower – leader spectrum

You’ve seen quotes from our #TAinnovators community above. Discussions about in-depth topics such as hiring leaders tend to evoke the best ideas during our Twitter chats! In this one, particularly, Rich Grant (@RichCareer), proposed a 7-point scale be created for use in interviews.

Unlike time-intensive scales with multiple questions, a 7-point scale, from follower (1) to leader (7), could be a quick way to gauge the extremity of leadership or follower tendencies in candidates. But how likely, even then, are candidates to self-identify as “lower” on the scale? What if we switched it around and put leader as 1 and follower as 7?

Changing the nomenclature

Further even, should we change the word “follower” completely to something more favorable? “Team player” is oftentimes accepted with a positive reaction, but “follower” evokes images of lazy complacency. Can employers commit to using team-player instead, and will this help?

Society at this time is hyper-focused on using inclusive words. Should this extend to recruitment? In general, whether we are hiring leaders or not, we need to think critically about what roles we need to fill. “Team player” and “leader” are sometimes even seen gracing the same job description. The important message here is to take a step back and see what gaps need to be filled in your company culture.

Use your judgment

At the end of the day,

“[a candidate] could be an extraordinarily *bad* leader, making wayward decisions, yet [they] have leadership qualities. Just being a leader does not make you a good candidate.” – @RachelMooreRS

Behaviors displayed in interviews can often be drastically different from those candidates would enact day-to-day. Candidates always want to put their best foot forward, from the resume to the first day as a new hire. Don’t take self-proclaimed leadership on their resume at face-value. Here are some ideas to pin down your perfect hire, whether you are hiring leaders, followers, or somewhere in between:

  1. Conduct a trial day;
  2. Ask candidates how they learn best;
  3. Find out if, when, and how they would voice an opinion;
  4. Ask them what type of work environment they prefer;
  5. And, most importantly, compare this to the role at hand.

Is the role you are hiring for have client-facing, intensive communication? Then hiring leaders will be your best bet! Is the role something that requires creativity and individual tasks? You may want to start considering followers, or team players, as qualified candidates for your talent pools.

Just as you wouldn’t reject a candidate for their gender or nationality, don’t reject a qualified candidate due to their introversion or work preferences. If you can see this fitting in with your company culture, give them a shot! Keep an open mind. One-third to one-half of the population are introverts. One of them could even be you.

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