The Role Of Follower in Leadership

During our #KaizenBiz chat last week, Miriam Ahern tweeted that “…it would be a big mistake to assume your most influential leaders are at top of  hierarchy [sic]” This was a brief side thread. The gist was that while the nominal leader may be the one with the title president, CEO or managing director, true authority and leadership may lie elsewhere. Typically, the obvious top of the hierarchy is followed by everyone else. This got me wondering about the role of the follower.

Follower is not exactly the most glamorous role

There seems to be a great deal of encouragement that everyone should be a leader; that everyone can be a leader. While it might not suit everyone to be in a leadership role, being a follower is often cast as being mindless, a sheep or lacking in some way. And yet, followers provide valuable supports to leaders. They listen, reflect, comply, question and legitimize the leader. The amount of influence followers have on leaders shows up in organizational policies, communication methods and the workplace environment. There are some very interesting thoughts about followers here and here.

A mutual relationship

Don Grayson and Ryan Speckhart write that “for everyone to try and lead is a waste of resources.” For leaders to be effective, there has to someone who isn’t busy creating a new path. Even if the relationship has negative aspects, there is something of value here. Followers reflect what the leader espouses so culture gets manifested. On certain projects, the leader and follower may swap roles. Followers may even allow for a leader to be a figurehead while the second-in-charge keeps the organization humming along. There is a mutuality that requires the leader and follower to work in concert so the organization can function.

The leadership style may affect the percentage of follower types. Another dimension, engagement, is usually how leaders are defined. This totally depends on the types of followers in an organization. In one model, Barbara Kellerman lists these types:

Isolates: They are mailing in their job and put forth the least amount of effort for their pay.

Bystanders: They choose not to be engaged but they are observing

Participants: They are engaged for or against the leader and put some of themselves into the relationship.

Activists: They bring a high level of engagement into their role. They are visible and vocal in their support or opposition to the leader.

Diehards: They bring strong personal and emotional qualities to their relationship. However, they can be committed to an idea or the mission of the organization as much as the leader. There is a high level of intensity to their support or opposition.

Do followers exist outside the leader?

So much is made of how to be a leader. And this is necessary work. But the other side of it can’t be that if you develop the leader, the followers will know what to do. And which kind of followers do you want to create?

With so many surveys pointing out how dissatisfied employees are, perhaps there could be a complementary track of follower development. Understanding that types of followers exists can fill out someone’s understanding of leadership. The followers can understand how they interact with their leader and even the organization. This may be pie in the sky but it would be interesting to see what would happen if people were encouraged to reflect, engage and support their leaders to be more effective and even inspirational.

*Join us for the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz on Friday, September 14th at 5pm BST/12pm ET/9am PT to delve into followers.

What are the traits of a good follower?

How do followers create leaders?

Why is being a follower so devalued if it’s crucial to leadership?

How does less hierarchy/flatter organizations change the role of follower?

If you missed the live chat on Twitter, here is a link to the transcript of the chat; click to scroll through the discussion.

About the author: Elli St.George Godfrey, founder of Ability Success Growth and small business coach/trainer, is the host of KaizenBiz. Whether you are expanding in your own backyard or into another country, my 3 Keys Coaching process guides established small business owners to unlock the CEO within and identify and develop strategies to be more effective leaders, plan more creatively, increase revenues and overcome the fears and obstacles that interfere with building thriving small to mid-sized businesses.



1 thought on “The Role Of Follower in Leadership

  1. Elli – It’s fabulous that you are raising this question of the (all-too-often-overlooked) role of the follower.

    Another aspect to explore is the “POWER of the follower.” Think about it. What would a leader lead if he had no followers at all? Therefore, the power to create a leader lies solely with the followers. Also, once “created” as a leader, his success also is determined by the followers who must make real (in the trenches) the vision and commands of the leader.

    It has always been my view that a powerful, dedicated, committed second person is critical to a leader’s success. And I’m sure it follows on down through the hierarchy of any organization.

    — JOSEPH

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