Guys, we have a leadership problem.

Mon May 25 2020 17:02:42 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

(Re)Defining Followership

By Heather Hyland

The problem with leadership worship.

I’m talking about the over-glorification of the entire concept. From an early age, we’re taught to emulate, learn, hone, and value leadership skills.Nearly every American college or university bakes “leadership” or demonstrating “leadership skills/activities” into their application processes.People who are identified as “leadership material” are put on a “leadership track,” which, by its very nature, is biased and exclusionary. The words we use to describe leaders and followers reflect and reinforce our cultural bias. Leaders are driven, commanding and assertive, while followers are lazy, subservient and meek. Leaders are lions, followers are lemmings.

Most of us see “follower” as a personality type (read: defect), or as the passive, default state of not being a leader. Given our cultural bias toward glorifying leadership, is it any wonder we don’t know how to effectively follow or what empowered followership looks like?

Sheep have a bad reputation, and all because they are such effective followers.

sSo what is a person who isn’t naturally drawn to leadership (or anointed as “leadership material”) supposed to make of this? I’ve often felt a little out of step in or alienated by our leadership-obsessed culture. I pull for the underdog. I’m not motivated by a need for recognition or a desire to be in a position of power (real or perceived). I reflexively bristle at overt displays of rank or I’m-more-important-than-you-ism, and kind of check out when I sense someone is overly concerned about their position in relation to me. I’m not proud of this. I don’t think it’s very constructive or productive on my part.

As humans in the world, we have to learn how to work within (and when to work outside of) hierarchical structures. So why are we offered leadership training but not followership training?Leadership and followership don’t feel static to me, nor do they feel mutually exclusive. They depend on one another, much like speaking and listening. I see leadership and followership as fluid states, and throughout our personal and professional lives, we have opportunities to be both—often simultaneously. Yep, even non-leadership aspiring me has to put on my big-girl pants and lead.

“As humans in the world, we have to learn how to work within (and when to work outside of) hierarchical structures. So why are we offered leadership training but not followership training?”

For the time being, however, let’s focus on followership, the cultural underdog. How can we change our perception of and relationship to followership (and, by extension, leadership)? How can we practice it in a more empowered, intentional way? How can we start considering followership something to which we should aspire, akin to leadership, with valuable skills we should seek to acquire and hone?

The Other F-Word

“If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, ‘You need to come up with a word other than follower because it’s socially unacceptable,” I would be much wealthier today."— Robert Kelley, author, behaviorist, professor at Carnegie Mellon University

Turns out,followeris a bit of a dirty word. Even to people who specialize in this stuff.

I’ll be honest—up until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the wordfollowership. I didn’t know it was A Thing. But there are smart people like Robert Kelley, Ira Challef, and Barbara Kellerman who have been working in the field of followership for some time, and they have some pretty interesting ideas.

Some don’t need to be heroes to be happy.

In his groundbreaking 1989 Harvard Business Review article, “In Praise of Followers,” Kelley imagined leadership and followership as coequal activities with differing skill sets. His followers are savvy, self-motivated tactical experts who play well with others, enjoy being a part of a team, and don’t need to be heroes to be happy.

As with any skill-based activity, some follower types are more effective than others.

Sheep and Yes People are pretty self-explanatory; I’m sure you’ve encountered a few during your time here on Earth. TheAlienated Follower is a bit of a malcontent, generally annoyed by leadership but too cynical to give a shit. TheSurvivors/Pragmatists are the make-no-waves, just-doin’-my-job-and-keepin’-my-head-down follower type. TheExpert Follower is the independent, risk-taking, self-motivated rock star of Kelley’s followership model, who has the confidence to call a leader out when needed, who values team success over personal glory, and who takes pride in a job well done.

“His followers are savvy, self-motivated tactical experts who play well with others, enjoy being a part of a team, and don’t need to be heroes to be happy.”

Ira Chaleff introduced the idea of courageous followership in his 1995 book,The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and for Our Leaders,describing followership as a practice that “offers dynamic support for leaders, but does not hesitate to constructively speak truth to power.”

Sounds great. But what does that mean?

Types of followers.

First and foremost, followers don’t serve a leader. I repeat—FOLLOWERS DON’T SERVE A LEADER. Theysupport and work in partnershipwith leaders in service of a common goal within a shared set of values. When rank takes a back seat to the common goal, people are more likely to speak up if they think a leader isn’t acting in the best interest of the goal or is in conflict with shared values. It feels a bit less risky. Chaleff is speaking to the importance of creating the space or fostering a culture that supports and encourages empowered followers. A sort of “if you build it they will come”Field of Dreamsfollowership utopia.

Chaleff’s follower types share some similar traits with Kelley’s.The Partneris Chaleff’s courageous follower, who actively supports the leader but feels equally comfortable calling them out should the need arise. Imperfect example, but think Ron Swanson to Leslie Knope.The Implementergets the job done with minimal supervision but is rarely critical of the leader. Extending on theParks and Recmetaphor, these are your Tom Haverfords and Donna Meagles.The Individualist*really* enjoys sticking it to the leader and, but is reluctant to offer support. Early, emo, eye-rolling April Ludgate comes to mind. Finally,The Resourceis

your dependable worker bee, who is there for the paycheck and prefers not to be noticed. If you can’t even be bothered to correct coworkers when they get your name wrong, you might be a Garry/Jerry Gergrich.

Ron Swanson: The Partner. Supports the leader but not afraid to call them out.

Donna Meagle: The Implementer. Gets the job done with little oversight and rarely calls out the leader.

April Ludgate

April Ludgate: The Individualist. Loves to call out the leader but offers little support.

Garry/Jerry Gergrich

Garry/Jerry Gergrich: The Resource. Just there to get the job done and prefers not to be noticed.

A Paradigm Shift

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to empowered followership is that it’s all well and good to think, “I’m totally an Expert Follower, and as such I shall commence with speaking up.” But until the culture around us changes, how realistic is that? I mean, Kelley, Chaleff, and others have been writing about this for years, and yet it still feels like things haven’t quite reached a tipping point.


How can we change the culture to make it more follower-friendly?

Changing Culture-with-a-capital-C is a big ask, especially at the company level. So let’s focus on the smaller cultures all around us that we participate in every day.

Ernest L. Stech, respected thinker/writer/lecturer on all things leadership and followership, suggests we need a bit of a leadership/followership paradigm shift to keep pace with flattening org structures, instant communication, and advances in technology. He posits that we should start considering leadership and followership at the same time (a shockingly rare occurrence), and start applying both to situations outside of the typical company or organizational structure. In the smaller cultures: Think your volunteer group, your family, your meet-up, your knitting group. Decouple the idea of “leader” from boss and “follower” from minion, and apply both across a group of relative peers.

Stech calls this the “Leadership-Followership State Paradigm,” and it asserts that both leadership and followership arestates or conditionsthat we all occupy at various times as part of any organization, team, or group. Sounds perfectly chaotic, right? But think about it. Our elected officials are leaders. As such, they exert influence to accomplish a great many important things in service to the common good—the laws that protect us, which projects are worthwhile and how they get funded, etc. However, in many ways they are (or should be) beholden to us. We elect them, so we are their constituents or supporters (which is another way of saying “follower”). We are able to use our voices (and our votes) to exert influence over them. This model, in which influence or “leadership” that shifts from one person or group to another, is essentially what Stech is talking about.

“Decouple the idea of ‘leader’ from boss and ‘follower’ from minion, and apply both across a group of relative peers.”

Look around your project team. Ideally, diverse skills and expertise are spread throughout the team, so no one person can accomplish the goal on their own. The account manager leads the client relationship, the project manager shepherds the overall process, timeline, and budget, the creatives drive design and content solutions. Whoever holds the position of authority should be willing to accept influence from every member of the team to achieve the shared objective. Communication should flow in all directions, rather than from the top down.

Stech offers up this illuminating visualization:

“Each person in a workgroup or team is represented by two small lights on a board: one blue, the other green. Whenever someone is in the leadership state, the blue light representing that person lights up. For someone in a followership state, the green light illuminates. Over time, there will be shifting of the lights from blue to green and back to blue depending on the activity of each individual. The result, if recorded, would be evidence of the process of state-shifting among the members of a workgroup or team.”

Why now? Why me?

Look around—it’s hard to miss these days. When there is a lack of accountability in leadership, and when followership isn’t valued as an indispensable, coequal partner to leadership, we end up with the Volkswagen emissions scandal. We have to sit through painfully contrived mea culpa campaigns from Wells Fargo, Facebook, and Uber while trying to enjoy the NBA playoffs. And the Harvey Weinsteins or Bill Cosbys of the world are left horrifically unchecked.


The cultural shift we need requires hard work, rethinking, and collaboration.

None of this is new. Historical examples of unchecked leadership abound—McCarthyism, Watergate, and XXX—and we owe a debt of gratitude to the courageous followers and whistleblowers who shined a light at huge personal and professional risk. I mean, look at Watergate. White House attorney John Dean went from enabling shitheal (Devin Nunes, I’m looking at you) to ultimate whistleblower. The pace of change is frustratingly slow, even as it feels like we’re reaching some kind of inflection point. As social and political movements like #MeToo/Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter and Everytown/Moms Demand Action gain traction, traditionally powerful individuals, companies and institutions are being held to account. We have so much further to go, but it’s a start, right?

Followership in Practice

So how can we bring this down from giant, newsmaking movements to our everyday working and personal lives?

Go back to Ira Chaleff. He distilled five behaviors to help turn the theory of courageous followership into an intentional practice:

  • Take responsibility— be active in owning a followership role. Be ready to participate fully.
  • Support the leader— Note, support =/= mindlessly following. It requires being mindful of the shared goal or mission and partnering with the leader in service to it.
  • Challenge a leader’s unproductive behaviors and policies- Otherwise known as calling a leader out on their shit when required.
  • Participate in transformation— Active followership requires a change in expectation and behavior from followers and leaders alike. Change can be uncomfortable—be ready for that.
  • Take a moral stand— Use your shared value set as guideposts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

Encourage follower influence.

Start to shift your own paradigm. Encourage your company or organization to think and talk about leadership ANDfollowership holistically and interconnectedly. We should clamour to be trained as leaders AND as followers. As Stech points out, if we do this paradigm shift thing right, empowered followership will no longer require great personal or professional risk or courage, because the influence of followers will be encouraged and expected.