Are you a leader, a follower, or both?

To lead people, walk behind them ~ Lao Tzu

When talking about the success of organisations, businesses or political parties, we often focus on leaders and leadership, but what about the followers? I’d argue that followers are just as important. There are no leaders without followers, and good leaders often have great followers. Yet, followership is an undervalued concept.

Robert E. Kelly was one of the first researchers who pioneered the theory of followership. He proposed 5 categories of followers:

  1. The sheep, who are passive and look to the leader for directions and motivation.
  2. The yes-people. They are more active and positive, but still look to the leader for direction and vision.
  3. Alienated followers think for themselves, but lack positivity. They often come up with many reasons why their leader or organisation is going in the wrong direction.
  4. The pragmatics are fence sitters. They will follow, but only if others follow first and it is clear where the leader or organisation is heading.
  5. Star followers are positive, independent thinkers. They are effective followers who will support their leaders if they agree, but will also challenge leaders if they disagree, offering constructive feedback.
Followership matrix
Followers in the upper right corner of the matrix are just as valuable as leaders. Source: In Praise of followers (Kelly, 1988)

Are you a good follower?

The success of an organisation depends partly on how well its leaders lead, but partly also on how well its followers follow. Most of us spend the majority of our time following others in one way or another. But we’re not always good at it. So how do you know if you are a good follower? And can we become better at it?

Star followers are sometimes viewed as ‘leaders in disguise’. According to Kelly, effective followers share the following qualities:

  • They think independently and can work without close supervision
  • They are committed to their organisation and to a purpose, principle, product or idea
  • They build their competence and focus their efforts for the greatest impact
  • They are courageous, honest, and credible.

Effective followers keep their leaders honest. Yet, followership has a negative connotation, almost to the point where it is seen as a weakness instead of a strength. But being a follower is more than just doing what you’re told. Kelly: “(…) our stereotype is ungenerous and wrong. Followership is not a person but a role, and what distinguishes followers from leaders is not intelligence or character but the role they play.”

Followers are leaders

In addition to the many available leadership courses, we should consider creating more followership training opportunities, focussing on topics like:

  • Improving independent, critical thinking
  • Self-management
  • Disagreeing agreeably
  • Building credibility
  • Aligning personal and organisational goals and commitments
  • Acting responsibly toward the organisation, the leader, coworkers, and oneself
  • Similarities and differences between leadership and followership roles
  • Moving between the two roles with ease.

If an organisation does not succeed, often its leaders are publicly criticised or changed. But there are alternatives. Having read Kelly’s classic publication ‘In praise of followers‘, it seems that becoming a better follower is an empowering experience.

18 thoughts on “Are you a leader, a follower, or both?

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