Not so long ago there were stampedes of people rushing towards ‘leadership’ courses. Leadership Universities were set up. MBAs and other management qualifications were in high demand. All courses emphasised leadership in change management.
In many health services a culture was promoted that ‘everybody’ had to lead, though it was never stated like that. The stampede going into and out of courses, led (from my observations) to people in teams all trying to lead. I could see that failing at most turns. Some recognised that if ‘everybody’ is leading then – “Who’s following?“. There was no training on being a good follower. The idea of being a follower was infra dig. I was fortunate to meet good followers, though they were in a minority. They did not just ‘follow’. They were creative people who contributed to my leadership of some teams. In the last 10 years it would have been seen as insulting to praise anyone for their followership characteristics but wonderful to praise them for leadership characteristics. Such was the culture – and I doubt it has changed much. But there was a shift in mindsets happening in the background.
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Followership is an important aspect of organisational dynamics, often overlooked in favour of its counterpart, leadership. However, effective followership is crucial for the successful functioning of any team or organisation. The idea of followership is not to make everyone subordinate or turn them into obedient followers.
Here are some key concepts related to followership:
- Definition of followership: Followership refers to the role of the follower in the leader-follower relationship. It involves the capacity to effectively respond to the direction of a leader, contribute to the team or organisation’s goals, and maintain group cohesion. It is not a passive role, but rather one that requires active engagement, critical thinking, and responsibility.
- Types of followers: Robert Kelley, a notable researcher in the field, identified five types of followers based on their levels of engagement and critical thinking: the “Sheep”, who are passive and uncritical; the “Yes People”, who are active but uncritical; the “Alienated”, who are critical but passive; the “Survivors”, who exhibit moderate levels of both activity and critical thinking; and the “Effective Followers”, who are both active and critical.
- The role of followership in leadership: Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin. Effective leaders require effective followers to implement their vision and achieve organisational goals. Followership is thus not a lesser role, but a complementary one to leadership.
- Followership skills: These include the ability to self-manage, think critically, build relationships, and effectively communicate. These skills enable followers to contribute effectively to their teams and organisations.
- Followership and organisational success: Effective followership contributes to organisational success by fostering a culture of active engagement, critical thinking, and shared responsibility. This can lead to increased productivity, innovation, and job satisfaction.
- Followership development: Just as leadership can be developed, so too can followership. This can be achieved through training programs that focus on developing the necessary skills and attitudes for effective followership.
In conclusion, followership is a critical component of the leader-follower dynamic and plays a significant role in the success of teams and organisations. It is an active and engaged role that requires a specific set of skills and attitudes, and it can be developed through targeted training programs.
Shift from leadership to followership
There has been a noticeable shift towards the study of followership in recent years. This shift is evident in the increasing number of research studies and publications dedicated to understanding the role and impact of followers in various organisational contexts. The concept of followership has gained greater status within leadership discourse, leading to the development of follower-centric leadership studies, as well as the emergent research area of followership. The intention of followership research is to understand followers from their own perspective.
The study of followership has evolved to include various aspects such as followership role orientations, context, follower role enactment, follower styles, implicit followership theories (IFTs), and social constructions of followership. This research has helped to expand our understanding of the leadership process by adding descriptions of follower styles and followership behaviours.
The emergence of followership as a distinct field of study is relatively recent. It is seen as an opportunity to make a significant contribution to existing literature. One such contribution is the exploration of implicit followership theories (IFTs), an area of followership research that has so far been scarcely researched.
The shift towards followership studies is also reflected in the recognition that followers are not just passive recipients of leadership but are significant actors in the leadership process. They are acknowledged as causal agents of followership outcomes, impacting the leadership process. This recognition has led to a departure from leader-centric studies and a focus on understanding followership from the followers’ perspective.
In summary, the shift towards followership studies reflects a broader recognition of the importance of followers in the leadership process and the need to understand their roles, behaviours, and perspectives. This shift is contributing to a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of leadership and organisational dynamics.
Implicit Followership Theories (IFTs) are a relatively recent concept in the field of leadership and followership studies. They refer to the preconceived beliefs or stereotypes that individuals hold about the behaviours and traits that characterise a typical follower. These beliefs are “implicit” because they operate at an unconscious level and are often automatically activated in relevant situations.
Here are some key points to understand about IFTs:
- Formation of IFTs: IFTs are formed through socialisation processes and personal experiences. They are influenced by cultural, societal, and organisational norms and expectations about followership.
- Content of IFTs: IFTs can include a wide range of beliefs about followers. For example, some people might believe that followers are passive, obedient, and lack initiative, while others might believe that followers are proactive, collaborative, and critical thinkers.
- Impact of IFTs: IFTs can significantly influence how individuals behave as followers and how they interpret and respond to leadership behaviours. For example, if a person’s IFT includes the belief that followers should be obedient and not question authority, they might be less likely to voice their opinions or challenge their leader’s decisions.
- Variability of IFTs: IFTs can vary significantly between individuals and groups. This variability can lead to differences in followership behaviours and dynamics. For example, a team whose members hold proactive IFTs might function very differently from a team whose members hold passive IFTs.
- Changing IFTs: While IFTs are relatively stable, they can be changed through training, education, and experiences. For example, leadership development programs that emphasise the importance of active and critical followership can help to shift individuals’ IFTs towards more proactive and constructive views of followership.
In summary, IFTs are an important concept in followership studies. They provide insight into the unconscious beliefs that shape followership behaviours and dynamics, and they offer potential avenues for improving followership and leadership practices.
Followership characteristics and roles
Active role – Followership is not passive, but involves making choices to support a leader and cause. Good followers actively engage.
Shared responsibility – Followers enable results through cooperation. Outcomes are a shared responsibility between leaders and followers.
Voice – Effective followers constructively voice opinions and feedback, rather than blindly conforming.
Critical thinking – Independent, critical thinking allows followers to avoid unhealthy obedience and groupthink.
Courage – Standing up to unethical leaders requires courage. Courageous followers hold leaders accountable.
Sacrifice – Dedicated followership sometimes requires sacrifice of self-interest for a greater good.
Initiation – Excellent followers also take initiative where appropriate instead of just waiting for direction.
Partnership – Leader-follower relationships are interactive partnerships, with fluid roles. The dichotomy is often artificial.
Development – Strong followership provides experience to develop leadership capabilities for the future.
Varied styles – Followership styles range from more passive to very active engagement. Different situations call for different approaches.
The core ideas emphasize that followership, like leadership, is a skillset that benefits from mindset shifts, new behaviours, and continuous growth. Conscious, empowered followers enable leadership impact.
Effective leadership is not just about the leader themselves, but also requires willing followership from others. A few thoughts on why followership matters:
- Leadership is a two-way relationship – Followers play an active role in granting authority and cooperating with leaders. Leadership does not exist in a vacuum.
- Followership implies trust – People will not follow just anyone. Leaders earn authority and trust through ethical behavior, competence, and caring for followers.
- Followers enable leaders – With willing cooperation, followers enable leaders to actually lead and make progress towards goals. Without it, leaders are powerless.
- Followers hold leaders accountable – Engaged followers provide important checks and balances for leaders’ power. They provide feedback to keep leaders grounded.
- Overly assertive leadership backfires – Trying to impose rigid top-down leadership without consent breeds resentment and resistance in followers.
- Leadership should develop followership – Great leaders mentor and empower followers to develop their own leadership capabilities over time as well.
Here are some key areas of research in followership:
- Followership styles: Robert Kelley’s model of followership styles is a significant contribution to followership research. He identified five types of followers based on their levels of engagement and critical thinking: the “Sheep”, the “Yes People”, the “Alienated”, the “Survivors”, and the “Effective Followers”. This model has been used in various studies to understand the impact of different followership styles on team and organisational outcomes.
- Implicit followership theories (IFTs): This area of research explores the preconceived notions or stereotypes that individuals have about followers. These implicit theories can influence how individuals behave as followers and how they interpret and respond to leadership behaviours.
- Followership role orientations: This research area focuses on how followers perceive their roles and responsibilities within the leader-follower relationship. It explores how these role orientations impact followers’ behaviours and attitudes, as well as their relationships with leaders.
- Followership and Leadership Dynamics: This line of research explores the interplay between followership and leadership. It examines how followers influence leaders, how leadership styles impact followership behaviours, and how the leader-follower relationship contributes to team and organisational outcomes.
- Followership in different contexts: Followership behaviours and dynamics can vary across different contexts, such as different cultures, industries, or organisational structures. Research in this area explores these contextual variations in followership.
- “Getting Ahead While Getting Along: Followership as a Key Ingredient for Shared Leadership and Reducing Team Conflict” – This study proposes that followership is a necessary component of the shared leadership model and investigates the dyadic interplay.
- Followership: The other side of leadership – The article argues that followership is an under-appreciated ingredient for leadership success and deserves more attention. Effective followers actively participate in transforming leaders’ vision into reality, rather than passively waiting for direction. They take initiative. The author delineates different types of followership styles, from the passive “sheep” to the proactive “partner.” Active engagement from followers enables leaders and helps hold them accountable when necessary. Transforming leadership theory has focused on the leader as agent of change. But followers have power through their consent and cooperation. Leaders and followers thus participate in a dynamic relationship. Skilled followers can lead at different times. The article advocates cultivating “courageous consciousness” in followers that balances support for leaders with independent thinking. Organizations should provide training and developmental opportunities to grow strong followers, not just leaders.
- “Followership: a review of current and emerging research” – This paper provides a review of role-based followership approaches, and implicit leadership and followership theories.
- “How Followership Boosts Creative Performance as Mediated by Work Autonomy and Creative Self-Efficacy in Higher Education Administrative Jobs” – This study empirically demonstrates that employees with better followership can motivate themselves to improve their creative performance.
- “Do you follow? Understanding followership before leadership” – This article explores the concept of understanding followership before leadership.
- “Research: To Be a Good Leader, Start By Being a Good Follower” – This article discusses the importance of being a good follower to become a good leader.
- “What Every Leader Needs to Know About Followers” – This article provides insights into what leaders need to understand about followers.
- “Followership Research: Looking Back and Looking Forward” – This article discusses the past and future directions of followership research.
- “Conceptualising followership – a review of the literature” – This is a very deep article providing a review of the literature on followership. This paper seeks to “clarify the conceptualization of followership and to highlight some key areas of interest in a review of literature on the topic. The paper discussed definitions of followers and followership which have been variously deﬁned, from the ability to follow leaders’ directives to more contemporary common perspectives of followership as an inﬂuential role assumed by those lower down in the hierarchy. A brief review of how followers have inﬂuenced the leadership literature ensued. The paper has also traced the development of earlier individualized leader-centric literature to the rise of bottom-up follower-centred perspectives, and multiple leaderships which encompass shared, collective and self-managed teams. The three main areas in followership literature per se were grouped into descriptive behaviour typologies (those theories that describe actual follower behaviours), prescriptive behavioural typologies (idealized behaviours and attributes that followers should possess) and situational theories.“
- “The Impact Of Leadership And Followership: An Organizational Phenomena” – This article discusses the impact of leadership and followership in an organisational context.
- “Of the Utmost Importance” A Study of Followers and Followership” – This study discusses the importance of followers and followership in achieving leadership or organisational success.
Links to Radical Transparency
Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, is well-known for his philosophy of “radical transparency” within the workplace. This philosophy encourages open, honest communication and the sharing of all information (except when legally or ethically inappropriate), including feedback and decision-making processes, to all employees. It is designed to foster an environment of trust, mutual understanding, and learning.
While not directly connected, there are aspects of Implicit Followership Theories (IFTs) that align with the concept of radical transparency:
- Active engagement and open communication: Effective followership involves active engagement and open communication, which aligns with the principles of radical transparency. Followers who actively engage, voice their opinions, and provide constructive feedback contribute to a transparent work environment.
- Critical thinking: Radical transparency encourages employees to question decisions, provide feedback, and engage in open discussions. This aligns with the followership trait of critical thinking, where followers are encouraged to evaluate and question decisions rather than accepting them passively.
- Influence of IFTs: IFTs can shape how followers respond to a culture of radical transparency. For example, if a follower’s implicit theory includes the belief that followers should be proactive and vocal, they might thrive in a radically transparent environment.
- Trust and mutual understanding: Radical transparency aims to build trust and mutual understanding, which are also important aspects of the leader-follower relationship. Trust and understanding can enhance followership effectiveness and contribute to a positive organisational culture.
In summary, while followership and IFTs are not directly connected to radical transparency, there are overlaps in the principles and behaviours they promote. Both concepts value active engagement, open communication, critical thinking, and trust, which are key to fostering a positive and effective organisational culture.
Take away summary
- Concept of followership: Followership refers to the role of the follower in the leader-follower relationship. It is about individuals managing their relationship with their leaders to complete their tasks, achieve team goals, and contribute to their organisation’s success. It involves qualities such as self-management, critical thinking, active engagement, and the ability to work well within a team.
- Origins of the term: The term “followership” was first used in the 1980s, with Robert Kelley being a key figure in its development. Kelley’s work in the late 20th century helped to establish followership as a legitimate area of academic study.
- Importance and recent trends: While leadership has traditionally been the focus of organisational studies and business practices, there has been a growing interest in followership in recent years. This shift recognises the importance of followers in achieving organisational goals and the need for effective followership for successful leadership.
- Research on followership: There is a growing body of research on followership, exploring its various aspects and its impact on organisational success. This research is contributing to a better understanding of the role of followers and how to cultivate effective followership.
- IFTs: Implicit Followership Theories (IFTs) represent the subconscious beliefs or stereotypes that individuals possess about the characteristics and behaviours that typify a follower. These theories, formed through personal experiences and societal influences, operate unconsciously and are automatically activated in relevant contexts. They significantly shape how individuals enact their role as followers and how they interpret and respond to leadership actions. IFTs can vary widely among individuals and groups, reflecting diverse perceptions of followership. Importantly, these implicit theories, despite their relative stability, can be reshaped through education, training, and experiences, offering potential pathways for enhancing followership and leadership practices. Understanding IFTs provides critical insights into the dynamics of followership and leadership, contributing to a more comprehensive view of organisational behaviour.
- Radical transparency: Designed to foster an environment of trust, mutual understanding, and learning – align significantly with IFT’s in that active engagement, open communication, critical thinking, and trust, are key to fostering a positive and effective organisational culture.
- Key article on followership: The article “In Praise of Followers” by Robert Kelley, published in the Harvard Business Review in 1988, is a seminal work on followership. It argues for the importance of effective followership for organisational success and outlines the qualities of effective followers, including self-management, commitment, competence, and courage.
- Cultivating effective followership: Organisations can cultivate effective followership by redefining followership and leadership, honing followership skills, providing performance evaluation and feedback, and creating organisational structures that encourage followership. Effective followership is a prerequisite for organisational success and should be valued and developed in the same way as leadership.