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Chapter 8: Method 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). 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). 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.

Defining Followership

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 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). 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). 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). 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).

Being a follower is part of all leaders' professional interaction and contributes to work-community success (Kelley). Followership is not blind obedience (Miller). 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). Too often outside observers attribute corporate success to leaders when, in reality, it is dependent on the technical expertise of others (Barnett). 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.

Methods Of Following The Leader's Followers

Successful inner leaders must master two techniques: leadership and followership. Being a good leader also mean that as the situation warrants it or the needs of a follower dictate it, the leader will subordinate himself or herself to a follower. Thus, inner leaders sometimes allow followers to lead out in a given phase of a joint task. Followership places the inner leader in a collaborative partnership with other members of the work community. Subordinating their judgment to their subordinates' is part of the inner leaders' role and assumes that there will be situations when these leaders will lead and times when they will be called upon to follow (Carson). This is not an abdication of leadership, a passive acceptance of another's lead, but a proactive and often courageous act of leadership. Only when the leader's past actions have created a partnership, when the leader and the follower are united by a common sense of purpose and direction (Carson), does the leader master followership.

Followership is a fundamental skill that should be a part of any effective leadership development effort. The idea of inner leadership as service suggests that people lead because they choose to serve (follow) others. Being a leader asks us to both serve one another and to serve a higher (work-community-wide) purpose (Senge et al.). Inner leaders have to lead and follow or get out of the way.

Mastering Followership Techniques

Learning the techniques of followership is a key part of inner leadership. Good leadership demands of each leader preparation, practice, hard work, and appropriate attitudes. Mastery of those leadership attributes first come as leaders see other leaders act in these ways and then model their leadership after these examples. The people inner leaders choose to model may be friends, teachers, or some one of the great present or historical hero leaders they honor by copying their behavior. Whom the leaders follow and what principles of action they emphasize determine the course of their leadership life and what kind of leaders they become.

Of course, inner leaders need to learn to follow their bosses so they can honestly teach their followers to also follow them. Acceptance of the follower role helps leaders develop the ability to respond willingly and openly to their bosses. As inner leaders accept instruction, they gain greater wisdom through observation and emulation based on acknowledgment of the skills and talents of their bosses. These actions awaken a sense of assurance that the boss is, in fact, worthwhile and someone from whom they can learn.

Good leaders accept the challenge to greatness inherent in the follower role. They are excited by the challenge and willing to subordinate external influences of peers, programs, and prestige in accepting unreservedly the follower's program and leadership as their own. As leaders submit to the authority of coworkers whom they recognize as worthy of emulation, they open themselves and their work community to progress.

The following paragraphs describe some of the attributes, behaviors, and characteristics inner leaders acquire through their followership experiences that prepare them for effective leadership.

As they follow others, inner leaders are able to overcome routine and change their past ways of working and even the nature and character of the work they do. Following the lead of others actually changes them. They become different people as a result of acceptance of the demands of service to others. They are removed from their ordinary pursuits and become leaders and models of the highest potential in leadership.

Follower leaders get personally involved with the programs of their work communities. They immerse themselves in these programs. They become doers of the work, not just overseers of it and in this process learn more about their common work and about themselves.

Inner leaders pick outstanding people to model and follow. In this way they learn intimate details about coworkers and are better assured which coworkers are prepared to practice leadership successfully before they subject themselves to those followers' guidance.

Inner leader followers learn to look beyond the surface reasons to see the basic nature of the situation. They learn the nature of the program or procedure but strive also to see through outward appearances and discern the character and worthiness of their associates and the ideas and practices being promulgated. Then they use this knowledge as a way to help others.

Effective inner leaders explore their own thoughts and attitudes, compare them with those of their followers, and alter their behavior as needed. They do not succumb to the temptation to rationalize.

Inner leaders in their follower role try out ideas and information received from their leaders-in-training to discern their utility in helping the work community succeed. They reject the dross and integrate the good parts to further prepare them for future work-community (and leadership) success.

Following their coworkers' lead causes inner leaders to be more receptive to other people. They learn to treat all coworkers with equal respect and dignity. Contrary to a popular misconception, advancements in the corporation are not always based on office politics (Serven). Leadership advancement often comes out of demonstrated competence, respect for coworkers' needs, and a desire to more fully serve coworkers and the community vision.

Followers of others learn to listen with understanding. Active listening requires leader-cum-followers to concentrate on both oral (conversational) and emotional (feelings and attitudes) levels in their communications with others (Braham). Real understanding comes as the individual is able to expand his or her capacities. Only as inner leaders accept other people as equals and come to the relationships with an open mind can they expect to learn and grow (Cashman and Burzynski).

In follower roles, inner leaders are often in a better position to find out the truth about work issues. And as they apply this truth in their actions, they gain freedom to direct the work community along desired paths. As followers, inner leaders are in a better position to seek advice from all those around them. Truth and wisdom are not always resident just in one sophisticated, experienced worker - even if that worker is the leader. They can be and often are present in almost anyone.

Following others lets inner leaders recognize that just because they have the title of leader does not make them superior to other workers. Followership teaches these leaders to accept the fact that personal maturation comes in direct proportion to one's contribution.

Followership asks inner leaders to ignore much of the personal acclaim that might come as a result of the adoption of their ideas or plans. Followership is an exercise in humility. It challenges leaders to anonymous service. Unselfish service is the mark of the successful follower - and the successful leader in the middle of corporate action.

Followership is not constraining of independent action. Rather it is an opportunity for the inner leader to use his or her experiences, expertise, and personal capacity to actively advance the work community's agenda.

Followers typically engage in prospering the work of the work community. And in doing this they do many things on their own initiative, things the putative leader may not have even thought of in first announcing the program and making assignments for its execution.

Being followers helps inner leaders be more conscious of their need for further training, of what they yet need to learn. They know that success in one branch of work community knowledge does not always immediately transfer to success in another.

In follower roles, inner leaders get the chance to view their special qualities and talents - and those of colleagues - as corporate assets and acquire a sense of responsibility toward their proper use. They learn to view these coworker strengths as a trust and to recognize the need to be vigorous in their use. They understand that talents not used, or improperly used, pay off for neither themselves nor their work community. Further, they come to know that life requires consistent effort. An occasional "big push" will not serve their needs or those of their community members.

Being followers lets inner leaders learn to respect others, to not ignore or belittle their fellows. They come to recognize the accomplishments of others and their dependence on the accomplishments of many as the basis for their own success. While what an individual coworker does may be important, it has greatest relevancy in context of the pioneering vision and work of all other work-community members - both present and past.

Followers find it easier - necessary - to practice the common virtues. They recognize that the work community is powerful only when they use their talents in helping others. Inner leaders learn in their follower roles to be considerate, slow to anger, and good tempered. They learn that they can manipulate the principles of human relationships only on these terms. They come to understand that their individual effectiveness depends on their character as they become free from pride, vanity, and arrogance. Then their lives change and they begin to be spiritually minded (Caill).

Inner leaders learn in their years of following the leads of others to use the qualities of personality and practice described here. It is a part of their preparation for effective leadership and a significant part of practical leadership.

Discussion Issues And Questions


  1. "The other half of leadership" is followership. Successful leadership requires leaders to sometimes be followers of the lead of members of their work community.

  2. Good leaders - great leaders - recognize the importance of subordinating themselves to the expertise of others. That kind of followership is also good leadership.

  3. By helping their followers gain experience in leading, inner leaders can produce profound and immediate results in their workers' efforts.

  4. Because the conventional wisdom is that followership is not as desirable as leadership, some leaders ignore this vital role - to their detriment.

  5. Followers often have a strong desire to lead and do so whenever the situation warrants.

  6. Skill in followership requires active participation, including a willingness to offer advice, assistance, input, support, and opposition when appropriate.

  7. Every worker is both a leader and a follower.


  1. Am I consistent in all my actions to implement plans in which followers participated in developing?

  2. Do I show respect and caring for each follower? Do I take the time to voice my interest in them?

  3. Do I engage with my followers in all the techniques of leadership described in this resource?

  4. Do I form a unified, cohesive work community where the followers are interdependent?

  5. Do I foster an attitude of continuous improvement, encourage member motivation, foster initiative, and accept feelings and attitudes as legitimate?

  6. Do I communicate the meaning of the ideas I share with followers as well as just the facts?

Activities Useful To The Leader's Role

Activity 1: What Is Your Followership Type?

Instructions. You can use this self-rating to rate yourself and your organization's leaders. For each of the following items, rate yourself using the following scale (you can also use the items to rate the leaders in your organization):

My ranking _________ Ranking for my organization _________









_____ 1. I enjoy working on routine tasks.

_____ 2. I am looking for new ways of doing things

_____ 3. I have trouble delegating tasks to my subordinates.

_____ 4. I like my subordinates to share the same values and beliefs.

_____ 5. Change makes me uncomfortable.

_____ 6. I encourage my subordinates to participate in decision making.

_____ 7. It is hard for me to get things done when there are many contrasting opinions.

_____ 8. I enjoy working on new tasks.

_____ 9. I feel comfortable giving power away.

_____ 10. I consider myself to be a risk taker.

Scoring key: Reverse scores for items 1, 5, 6, 7, and 9 (0 = 3, 1 = 2, 2 = 1, 3 = 0). Need to Control Score: Add items 1, 2, 5, 8, and 10. Your score will be between 0 and 15.

Total: _________

Need to Be Controlled Score: Add items 3, 4, 6, and 9.Your score will be between 0 and 15.

Total: _________

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