Are Followers About to Get Their Due?
Online forum now closed. Leadership may be much-discussed, but followership merits equal attention, suggests HBS professor Jim Heskett. As a follower, what advice would you give other followers who want to have an impact on their jobs and organizations? As a leader, what do you do to foster good followership?
Are leadership and followership joined at the hip? It seems impossible to separate the two. They are reflective of one another. These are two of the predominant opinions expressed in one way or another by respondents to this month's column. Phil Clark commented: "Leadership and followership dynamics are really one and the same. Those who lead in one instance may follow in another." As C. J. Cullinane put it, "... to be a great leader you first have to be at some time in your career a great follower." Jeremy Vogan added, "... oftentimes the only real difference between a great leader and a great follower in the business world is the opportunities they have had to better themselves." Eric Johnson Wildbear concurred, saying that "Followership ends up being the same as leadership, only from a different perspective in the organization ...." According to Mohammad Razipour, "In business, where we are talking about 'co-creation,' 'integration,' 'participation,' and 'collective wisdom,' we should not draw a sharp line between ... them (leadership and followership)." Dora Bonnet says, "I like the idea of followers and leaders 'walking together.' You never know when you have to exchange roles."
As a result, while several respondents seemed to favor the inclusion of material concerning followership in a course on leadership, there did not seem to be a strong push for separate attention to the matter of followership in a business school curriculum. Several expressed the belief that followership is too situational to constitute good material for study. Hemanshu Joshi said, "... followership is not a skill but a reaction." Surendranath A. commented, "Any kind of teaching on how to be a good follower may not help since it will depend on the style and type of leader ...." In Linda Joy Ortiz' words, "I do not think individuals would benefit from classes on followership ... following is basically an instinct and has more to do with individual character, culture, moral, and ethical traits and beliefs."
Respondents raised several interesting questions. In referring to author Barbara Kellerman's typology of followers (isolates, bystanders, participants, activists, and diehards), Kim Allen questioned whether we hire for the right traits. As she put it, "I find it interesting that most job descriptions imply that 'diehard' or 'activist' employees would serve the organization best. Typical desirable traits include 'passionate, dynamic, energetic, devoted.' Where are the calls for job applicants who are 'calm, clear-minded, interested, flexible, and even-keeled'?" Sameer Kamat asked whether Kellerman's categorization over-simplifies the issue and opines that "these are transient states that followers pass through in their careers." Sujeet Prabhu observed that "The five types of followers described by Barbara Kellerman seem to be mirror images of leadership styles." And H. C. Garner stated, "If you can't be led, you certainly can't effectively lead." And Bruce Duncil commented, "Leaders can only be defined by and through their following... Kellerman's noting a possible shift in power and influence from leaders to followers similarly suggests that the proper question is now ... 'are leaders about to get their due?'" What do you think?
Recent books have examined every aspect of leadership. Few have addressed challenges for those of us who follow, that is to say everyone at some time in our lives. There are a few exceptions. Abraham Zaleznik wrote about "The Dynamics of Subordinacy" more than four decades ago. Fifteen years ago, Jack Gabarro and John Kotter published a piece called "Managing Your Boss," in which they advocated: (1) understanding your boss and his or her "goals and objectives, pressures, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and preferred work styles"; (2) understanding yourself and your needs, including "strengths and weaknesses, personal style, and predisposition toward dependence on authority figures"; and (3) developing and maintaining a relationship that is centered around such things as frequent communication, an understanding of mutual expectations, dependability and honesty, and selective use of "your boss's time and resources."
Now Barbara Kellerman in her new book, Followership, asks where leaders would be without good followers. This question may be particularly significant in an age when followers find it easier to organize by means of the Internet at the same time that, in Kellerman's opinion, "cultural constraints against taking on people in positions of power, authority, and influence have been weakened." Kellerman goes on to say: "The fact is that followers are gaining power and influence while leaders are losing power and influence." In fact, in recent years we have seen management experiments with teams in which it is difficult to identify a leader.
Kellerman describes five types of followers: isolates (completely detached), bystanders (observers only), participants (engaged), activists (who feel strongly and act accordingly, both with and against leaders), and diehards (deeply devoted). Dismissing the first two groups as antithethical to good followership, and by extension, potentially supportive of bad leadership (as in Nazi Germany), she focuses on behaviors of the other three types. Of these three, "participants" seem to me to offer the most potential for long-term, productive relationships between subordinates and their bosses, particularly in large organizations. Participants work hard either in support of or against the policies and practices of their leaders. As Kellerman puts it, "they care enough … to try to have an impact."
Clearly it's in the best interests of successful leaders to understand and capitalize on the needs of such subordinates. Leaders need to be constantly aware of something that several of us have discovered in our research: Every decision made by a leader—particularly decisions involving hiring, recognizing, and firing people—is judged by 10 or 15 subordinates, who regard the "fairness" of those decisions as one of the most important factors in the quality of their work life.
This observation raises some questions for us. As a follower, what advice would you give to other followers wishing to have an impact on their jobs and organizations? As a leader, what do you do to foster good followership? Why isn't followership addressed by business school curricula along with leadership? Does it belong in a course of study? Or does this just run the risk of deteriorating into a discussion of how to manipulate your boss? What do you think?
To read more:
John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter, "Managing Your Boss," Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1993
Barbara Kellerman, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008)
Abraham Zaleznick, "The Dynamics of Subordinacy," Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1965