Many researchers, experts and non-experts, consider leadership as one of the catalysts of success for every organization. Books, courses, master programmes (such as the MBA course) share the common aim to provide leaders with the necessary skills to successfully manage employees. Bookshelves are full of fascinating books with similar titles, such as: ‛The Secrets of a successful leader’, ‛ How to be a leader’, ‛10 rules for successful leadership’. One of the characteristics of mainstream leadership is a misperception of a leader being the hero; perhaps it is because we are brought up with stories of great and heroic leaders shaping history and this myth is perpetuated by our current business culture: ‘Always be a leader, not a follower’ seems to be the most widespread slogan of today’s society.
The leadership industry has established an unprecedented growing popularity, but it has also shown its limits (Kellerman, 2012). Where have all the followers gone? Much of the work on followership has been developed in the leadership context and conceived from a leader-centric perspective. So as to not generalise this approach, we need to clarify how followers influence attitudes, aptitudes and leaders’ behaviours and how they are affected in turn. Hence, one should not simply ‘reverse the lens’ in focusing on the follower’s role - creating a follower-centric approach - without considering the leader and the context.
In 2009 Prof. Agho from Indiana University interviewed 302 senior executives to explore their perceptions on distinctive characteristics of leaders and followers. The results revealed that from a leader’s perspective (99 percent), the followership was important for the unit performance and for the quality of work. Findings reaffirmed what Kelley (1992), one of the most influential scholars and pioneers of the followership research, had attested: followers contribute to an average of 80 percent of the success of organisations, while leaders only contribute 20 percent.
Recently I attended a lecture titled Followership: a perplexing case of obliteration ? held by Angela Thody from University of Lincoln (2014). She explored the existing gap between the strong stream of leader-centric studies and the limited follower presence in business management and educational leadership research. To the right you can find some questions I have freely adapted and tailored from Thody’s questionnaire (2014) which may be helpful to find out whether you are a follower and/or a leader.
You as a Follower and/or Leader:
1. Do you hold a post-graduate degree/ diploma/certificate in followership?
2. Have you ever attended/organized a professional development course related to managing from the bottom up (i.e. how to manage one’s superiors)?
3. Have you read (or come across) a book on ‛how to be a follower’?
4. Do you have a post graduate degree/ diploma /certificate in leadership?
5. Have you attended/organized or used for your staff a professional development short course on managing from the top-down ( i.e. how to lead)?
6. Would you define your current professional role-status as primarily that of a leader?
7. If not, would you define your current professional role-status as having some element of leadership?
8. Would you define your current professional role-status as primarily that of a follower?
9. If not, would you define your current professional role-status as having some element of followership?
I am confident that part of your answers will establish the view that many of us are followers. This interesting delivery by Thody, made me question whether the romanticised fantasy that a leader is the one and only is nothing but a mere illusion since the relationship between a leader and his/her respective followers is one in which they co-exist, ie: leadership cannot exist without followership and vice versa.
Why has this topic been given such little importance? What are we missing by ignoring followership? We should give appropriate space and dignity to the category ‘follower’ which is commonly associated with negative images and terms such as ‘passive’ and ‘weak’. Thody (2000; 2003), referring to the negative connotations of followership, argued: “No-one wants to be regarded as one who follows blindly like sheep nor do people in the egalitarian twenty-first century perceive themselves as of lower status to others”.
In an era of networked organisations and increasingly flat and flexible organisational structures, it is not always possible to define who exactly is a follower. A project manager in a team can play the role of a follower in another organisation whilst a teacher can be in charge of a voluntary organisation. We are all followers and leaders in different spheres of our lives. Followers and leaders are always roles and functions of specific contexts and not people with inherent characteristics (Baker, 2007).
Leaders need followers to develop and implement their vision. Without followership, leadership can’t exist. This intrinsic union can be metaphorically represented by the Möbius strip (Hughes, Ginnet and Curphy, 1999).
Like the property of the strip of Mobius that has only one surface, leadership and followership cannot be considered separately in organizations. Leaders are not the only people who have the power: followers exert wide influence on the leader’s success (Offerman, 2004) and it can be argued that the follower gives the leader power through the choice to follow (Kilburn, 2010).
In my present role as a middle leader I continuously experience elements of following: on the one hand I am a follower of the business strategy, on the other hand I get and receive all the multiple requests coming from the bottom line. Somehow we are all followers and maybe we should provocatively rename our job positions to adhere to this perspective: from HR Manager to HR Follower; from Marketing Manager to Marketing follower ...Being a good follower is much more than being a YES man or rebel; but being able to tell the truth in a responsible way, suggesting to the leaders its vision and its solutions. A good followership requires qualities to be developed and the ability to be a ‘Star Follower’ (Kelley, 2008), which means being critical to success of all groups and organisations and acting with “intelligence, independence, courage and a strong sense of ethics”. The description of the ideal middle manager as “responsible, autonomous and accountable “(Appleby, 1997) sums up the way which a follower should be. We could imagine followers as firms providing goods and services to their customers, which are their leaders: in this way, followers maintain their self-identity and at the same time meet the needs of the leader.
Think about a CEO who is a successful leader but a problematic follower: he will come into contrast with the Board or other shareholders with predictable consequences. The follower should assume greater awareness of his/her role, hence the importance of support development paths and practical training on followership. Hurwitz and Hurwitz (2012) offer a concrete action plan.
Let’s start having open discussions about followership in a way that these can have a positive impact on business discourse. This decision strongly depends on the corporate culture and on the values given to employees of allhierarchical levels.
Getting to the heart of the followership development skills focusing on training, coaching and mentoring.
Let’s begin measuring and providing concrete and actionable feedback on followership. This could be implemented through mechanisms of performance evaluation or by defining the followership in skills assessment.
The purpose of this reflection is not proposing a follower centric vision, offering patterns already employed in leadership studies. The core is to focus on how to build followership and leadership skills in an ‘integrated package’, introducing innovation and efficiency in organisations.
Leadership is not just the scope of the leader, and followership is not just adhered to by followers. After all, leading is about following, and following is also about learning to lead.
Agho ,A. (2009) Perspectives of senior-level executives on effective followership and leadership. Journal of leadership and Organizational Studies, 16(2)159-166.
Appleby, R. (1997) A middle management course: professional development or manipulation? Teacher Development, 1(2) 293-306.
Baker, S. D. (2007) Followership The theoretical foundation of a contemporary construct. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 14 (1) 50-60.
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., and Curphy, G. J. (1999).
Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (3rd ed.) Boston, MA: Irwin/McGraw Hill.
Hurwitz and Hurwitz (2012), Firms also need good followers, The Bottom Line October 2012 (retrieved from http://www.cpaontario.ca/MediaRoom/MediaCoverage /2012mCoverage/1009page15752.pdf )
Kellerman, B. (2012) The End of Leadership. New York:
Kelley, R. (1992) The Power of Followership. New York: Doubleday.
Kelley R (2008) Rethinking followership. In Riggio R,
Challeff I and Lipman- Blumern J (Eds) The art of followership. New York: Doublerday.
Kilburn, B. R. (2010) Who are leading? Identifying effective followers: a review of typologies. International Journal of the Academic Business World, 4 (1) 9-17.
Thody, A. (2000). Followership or followersheep? An exploration of the values of non-leaders. Management in Education, 14(2) 15-18.
Thody, A. (2003) Followership in educational organisations: a pilot mapping of the territory. Leadership and Policy 2,
Thody, A. (2014) Followership: a perplexing case of obliteration? [lecture] Doctoral Study School, University of Lincoln, 18 October.