We hear a lot about leadership. There are endless lists describing the leadership styles and skills essential to engage teams and team members for success. The relevancy of inherent versus learned leadership has been hashed and re-hashed. Articles and videos discussing how to improve the top-down relationship between leaders and followers abound.
Leadership is a topic that has been researched and written about for thousands of years.
But what about followership?
What about the need for followers to take responsibility for how they choose to engage with leadership? Or understanding how both rank and behavior define the follower position.
Robert Kelley (1992) argues that leaders contribute, at best, 20% to the success of an organization, and the remaining 80% rests on followers. (pp. 7-8) Yet, for many, any discussion about followership seems negative, almost dirty. Like we are automatically defining all those who are not leaders as sheeple.
For many, the reason we focus on leadership is because the onus on the leader is clear. They ultimately have to take responsibility for both success and failure. But, like the “great (wo)man” theories on leadership, too many people put the focus on the leader while failing to recognize that, more often than not, the outcomes are directly related to the nature and engagement of the followers. To put it bluntly – Hitler could not have perpetrated the Holocaust without actively engaged followers. And Apple could not have been anywhere near as successful if Steve Jobs didn’t have self-starter followers willing to work with him despite his idiosyncratic ways.
So it is just as important to discuss the requirement for effective and engaged followership when trying to understand and improve teamwork for strategic success. Gordon Curphy and Mark Roellig (2014) argue that followers “play an equally important, if often overlooked, role in the success of any group or organization” and that “the strength of any team is in the followers and there can be no leaders without followers.” (p. 2)
And it is important to remember that most position leaders in an organization are also followers. Middle management, even the VPs, and division directors are subordinate to the upper echelon. As is true for any military organization. This means that even leadership, more often than not, has an aspect of followership to it.
But what is followership and why is it important?
Barbara Kellerman (2008) defines followership as “a relationship (rank) between subordinates and superiors, and a response (behavior), of the former to the latter. ” (Introduction, p. XX) And while rank determines some aspects of authority and influence, most position leaders cannot rely solely on their rank in the hierarchy to accomplish their missions successfully – even in the military.
So followership is important because followers “determine not only if someone will be accepted as a leader, but also if that leader will be effective.” (Kelley, p. 13) This makes the level of follower engagement an extremely powerful, yet often ignored variable in success. And it suggests that effective, passionate, engaged followers are a critical piece in the puzzle of successful leadership, and working towards vision.
It also means that effective leadership at lower levels in an organization requires subordinate leaders to engage in higher-level followership – applying critical thinking and working to meet the objectives as defined by their own leaders. Which can set the tone for followership in their own teams.
And, as Curphy and Roellig (2014) point out, “social psychology tells us that something other than cost-benefit analyses may be happening when people choose to play followership roles.”(p. 3) Thus, it behooves leadership to consider why people are choosing to follow and how the situation at hand, and their own example of followership, is impacting the levels of followership.
But what is followership really?
Seems like many organizational leaders, at least until recently, want diehard followers (Kellerman) willing to sacrifice their lives on the altar of overtime. Followers who will put their commitment to work over their own mental and physical well-being.
As we see a revolution taking place in the workforce, and as a result of Covid-19, it behooves us to consider how followership choices and leadership demands are impacting burnout and turnover.
So, followership is an attempt to move away from leadership centric understanding of organizational success. It suggests that instead of looking at the differences between managers and leaders, for instance, it would behoove us to understand the different types of followers participating in an endeavor as a way to gauge group dynamics and determine who is making (or needs to be encouraged to take) an active contribution.
It suggests we reconsider how organizational culture is impacting the followership levels and what leadership can do to improve the environment – to increase follower engagement, their willingness to express opposing positions, and the likelihood that a follower will take chances while applying critical thinking.
While many leaders would love to move into a state of mission control, where the leader presents centralized intent but the outcome is determined by decentralized self-initiated execution by subordinate units, the ability to do so depends on having higher-level followers who understand the vision and intent and are capable of self-direction in accomplishing the mission at hand.
But, does that mean every team needs to consist solely of high-level followers?
Absolutely not. While it is wonderful to be able to move into a state of mission control, not every follower has the ability or desire to function in such an environment. After all, not every follower can, or will want to, be an exemplary follower all the time. There will be missions that speak to a follower and light a fire in them to greater levels of engagement. And there will be goals and operations that seem tedious and superfluous.
Sometimes it is incumbent upon leadership to engage command and control with both centralized intent and control of outcome. And that too is often dependent on more than the follower’s developmental level.
But just as often it depends on the followership level of the subordinates involved.
Thus, knowing and understanding followership levels and types becomes essential – especially the ability to acknowledge and engage lower-level followers.
Because the yes men (Kelley), the participants (Kellerman), even the brown nosers (Curphy and Roellig) often carry a significant part of the burden while choosing to simply follow instructions. As Curphy and Roellig note, these mid-level followers “are earnest, dutiful, conscientious, and loyal employees who will do whatever their leaders ask them to do. They never point out problems, raise objections, or make any waves, and do whatever they can to please their bosses.”(5-6) And the higher-level followers may not have the leadership capabilities to guide them, or the respect and influence to get them to follow.
And while I have heard many people argue that such followers “just want to get paid,” history suggests that there is more at play when we examine teams through the lens of followership.
And that is because followership is a choice.
Which makes it incumbent on leadership to be aware not only of the followership level or type but why a follower is responding as they are.
Applying Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational leadership theory will, for instance, help leaders look at the developmental level of the follower as an integral part of determining how a leader should engage. But it does not include an examination as to why a highly developed follower may choose low-level followership. And that may be a far more important variable in influencing followership.
And to be very clear, I am not suggesting that leadership needs to get rid of someone who’s is more than capable but chooses lower-level followership. Far from it. If anything, it is incumbent upon leadership to determine why the follower is responding the way they are and figure out how to guide the relationship to garner the desired response behavior and to help the follower focus for greater engagement. Because ultimately these mid-level followers play an integral role in success.
And while many would argue that it is the leadership’s responsibility to get followers engaged, that removes responsibility from the follower – who makes a choice about how they respond to the leader’s style, influence, and vision.
Now clearly, if someone is consistently failing to engage in active followership, always acting as a bystander or isolate, then leadership needs to consider why that is happening. But if leadership can discover the motives behind the behavior, how the situation, environment, developmental level, sense of trust and security, and how internal conflict are impacting followership, then there is a real possibility of helping a potential fire turn around and find the connection they need to rise up to the occasion.
But then, what about finding leaders among the followers?
So you might think this means that high-level followers make great leaders.
Unfortunately, we often find that, when higher-level followers are tapped for leadership, they suddenly lose their way. This is because, while leadership has an integral aspect of followership to it, followership does not address the criteria for leadership. Effective leadership requires the capacity to delineate vision, engage influence, and direct process beyond self.
It requires the ability to act as an exemplary follower and translate the objectives of superiors into goals for subordinates, not just for themselves.
That is not to say that the alienated (Kelley) or critical followers (Curphy and Roellig), who are often very vocal and may actually demonstrate the ability to get others to follow, should be given those roles. These people may have their own ideas, but their inability to actively work as part of the team often means they do not understand that leadership is more than having the idea and giving orders. That leadership involves getting into the trenches and working with their team to achieve success.
But it is also not enough for higher-level followers to step in when they see something that needs to get done to determine leadership. Or for them to be vocal about issues and propose possible solutions in seeking out someone else’s vision. Or for followers to willingly taking the chance that their actions will invoke reprimand if they don’t work.
Promoting exemplary followers can often backfire and can, quite frankly, be a mistake of epic proportions.
Exemplary followership, the activists and diehards who are highly engaged and even bring critical thinking to the table, are not necessarily good leaders. And it would often behoove an organization to leave them in a position where they can continue to contribute as exemplary followers.
Now, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be amply rewarded for their work. On the contrary, while leadership is ultimately held responsible for the outcome, actively acknowledging the people who make success possible can create an environment that bolsters engaged followers and gives people another reason to demonstrate critical thinking and high-level followership.
But what about the responsibility of the follower?
Ultimately, followership is a choice. Followers choose who, and which ideas, they wish to follow. They choose how they are going to engage with a leader’s vision. They choose how they will respond to a superior’s leadership and vision for the future.
And it is essential that followers acknowledge their part in the leadership dynamic. Followers who want good, effective, leaders need to consider how they present themselves to the team. How they present their ideas. How they engage when the going gets rough and they need to step up and take risky action for the benefit of the team.
So, followership, like leadership, is really a two-way street.
Followership is as much a part of success as great leadership.
And to be very clear, while the focus here is on followership in relation to position leadership, not emergent leaders who rise to the occasion and find themselves engaging in leadership by choice or necessity, any leader ultimately needs followers to successfully engage with the situation at hand. And whether we are discussing position or emergent leaders, the followers choose to follow and accept the leader’s vision, path, and influence.
Leadership that does not actively acknowledge, and that is unable to determine, the nature of followership is less likely to create a cohesive whole. They will have a harder time guiding a team that has sheep (Kelley) and slackers (Curphy and Roellig) along for the ride.
Similarly, a leader and team who ignore the alienated followers and criticizers, simply because they present critical thinking but choose not to engage, will have a much harder time finding a way to bring them aboard and encourage them to be active contributors to the mission at hand.
Organizations have begun to recognize that the modern workforce is not propelled forward by the leaders. That it is the followers who, more often than not, determine success. But, unfortunately, this acknowledgment happens only after great success takes place. Not as part and parcel to the process that is integral to why these followers choose to engage in the first place.
And that has a real impact on effective leadership and success.
Curphy, G. and Roellig, M. (2014) Followership. Online: https://osipt.com/blog/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Curphy-Roelling-Followership.pdf
Kellerman, B. (2008) Followership. Harvard Business Review Press.
Kelley, R. (1992) The Power of Followership. Doubleday Currency.