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Chapter 8: Technique 5: Learning Followership

Companies go to great lengths to cultivate corporate leaders. They focus on the roles and responsibilities of the leader as a figurehead, spokesperson, or even the emotional heart of the corporation (Bolman and Deal, 1995). Little, if anything, is mentioned about the other half of leadership: followership. Of course, a major part of an inner leader’s job is to help followers be self-governing, independent leaders in their own right (Kulwiec, 2001). But success in doing this requires that they also assume the role of follower of the lead of their newly self-governing followers. Neither traditional theory nor leadership development programs typically include instruction in how to be a follower of others’ leads.


Given the complexity of modern corporate structures, every leader is a follower of someone else even as others follow him or her. Both the professional literature and operational experience attest to this fact. Therefore, being an effective follower is as important professionally as being an effective leader. Hollander (1978) suggests that we must consider followership as one functional part of leadership. But there is another significant element of the idea of leader as follower: making the followers.

Part of leadership is to build other leaders within the work community. Leaders build followers. They are concerned with follower growth. They enlarge their followers, their capacities, knowledge, and skills. They enlarge their expectations: and when followers become expert, the leader assumes a follower role from time to time as the expert guidance of given followers is needed by the work community. The problem is that the conventional wisdom is that followership is not as desirable as leadership. Many leaders accordingly ignore this vital role or, worse, eschew accepting that role.

The relatively minor status of followership accounts for some of this reluctance. Misconceptions about followership are prevalent in our society. Some of this lack of understanding stems from our language (Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy, 1999). Dictionary definitions focus on the ideas that a follower role is somehow less than other roles. They define followers as “in service” to others, as passive receivers of the ideas of others, or as imitators of someone else. These definitions connote a reactive role rather than a proactive one. In fact, these ideas define only a minor part of followership. Followers often have a strong desire to lead and do so whenever the situation warrants.

Because followers are not often in the spotlight, it is easy to think of them as automatons. This is a mistake (Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy, 1999). Followers vary tremendously in education and experience. They often command much organizational power, and they often are governed by an internal locus of control (Rotter, 1971). Inspiring them to want to do what the inner leader wants, therefore, becomes a dynamic—constantly changing—leadership task.

In becoming followers of their own followers, leaders assume a proactive role intended to help accomplish needed work-community results. Traditional definitions ignore the fact that every work community is growing and altering continuously. Inner leaders, of course, lead in this transforming process; but so do followers. Leaders understand that the needs of both parties in the leader– follower relationship are essential to success. Leaders can no longer (if they ever could) be content to learn only about their side of the equation. Inner leaders learn leadership partly through experiencing followership first hand (Carson, 2001).

Being a follower is part of all leaders’ professional interaction and contributes to work-community success (Kelley, 1992). Followership is not blind obedience (Miller, 1992). Most corporate success comes about because of people who have been willing to follow. This is true of leaders too. Another example from sports helps illustrate this concept. A football team’s star runner isn’t the key to a powerful running game. Rather, it is dependent on the offensive linemen, whom most people would not think of as team leaders. Yet a distinguishing characteristic of a great running back is his ability to follow his blockers as they lead out in the play.

Similarly, few top leaders can claim to have personally developed the strategic plan for their corporation. Nevertheless, the main elements of this plan that will guide the corporation and its chief leaders into the future are the result of the work of anonymous followers. These behind-the-scenes inner leaders effectively establish the character and purposes of the organization.

They bring about change directly through their research, report writing, and negotiation skills in initially “selling” their part of the master plan to the boss and in subsequent implementation tasks.

By helping their followers gain experience in leading, inner leaders can produce profound and encompassing results in their workers’ efforts. Perhaps more than any other single factor, this kind of behavior by inner leaders will help the work community get beyond theory and realize deep, lasting change (Dering, 1998). Too often outside observers attribute corporate success to leaders when, in reality, it is dependent on the technical expertise of others (Barnett, 1996). Good middle-level leaders recognize the importance of subordinating themselves to the expertise of their in-the-middle peers and subordinates. That kind of followership is also good leadership. Both leader and follower roles, therefore, are emphasized by effective inner leaders.

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