Leadership and Followers

Raising the Importance of Followers: How to Ensure Leadership from the Middle

Amber Johnson Care for people, Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders

Leadership and Followers

“If you think you’re leading but no one is following, then you are only just taking a walk.”

What Makes a Good Follower?

Leadership scholars are increasingly turning their attention to the understanding of followership in recognition that without it, leadership is a moot point.

Followership describes the behaviors of the men and women who make an organization work. Followers are different than subordinates, a hierarchical term that denotes a person’s place in an organization relative to a leader. While a subordinate might be expected to execute the directives of a manager, a follower can be expected to engage with the ideas of the leader. As panelists at the annual summit of the International Leadership Association (ILA) reminded the audience, the term is followership, not followersheep.

For Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower, the decision to invest his career in understanding followership was a response to the Holocaust. “How can we prevent people from following toxic leaders?” he wanted to know.

Now a leading scholar in the study of followership, Chaleff challenges others to focus on the importance of a follower’s role. Chaleff draws an analogy to dancing the tango. One partner leads, the other follows. The leader must hold the frame, the dance’s posture, while the follower adds the artistic elements and flourishes. Leadership is setting the frame, followership is building within the frame.

How can leaders who don’t want to walk alone foster stronger followership?

First, leaders can recognize that power has shifted.

Barbara Kellerman, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, makes a compelling historical case in her book The End of Leadership. The weak, she writes, are increasingly challenging the strong. Drawing a comparison to the changing role of women in society, she writes:

Leaders were generally expected to tell followers what to do, and followers were generally expected to do as they were told. No longer. Now followers, like wives, are far sturdier than they used to be, stronger and more independent. Moreover, now, ideally anyway, leaders are supposed to suggest or recommend that their followers follow, not order them to do so.

The sources of this shift are wide ranging, from the Enlightenment to social media. But what matters is that it has occurred. Positional authority is no longer enough to ensure subordinates follow orders. Followers are looking for the carrot, not the stick.

Next, leaders can admit it’s better this way.

The rising importance of followers comes with a few frustrations for leaders, but more importantly it comes with a host of benefits. Engaged followers take responsibility for reaching outcomes. Whether that’s winning the big football game or getting the client presentation ready on time, that responsibility helps organizations reach their end goals. Empowered followers show up earlier, work harder, bring better ideas, solve problems, and get the job done.

What happens when followers are treated like subordinates? One story comes to mind. Two tech companies were working together on a high priority collaboration when they hit a snag in the project. A technical solution was needed. One team member knew of an elegant solution but kept the suggestion to himself. Why? Because the bossy leaders of the other organization hadn’t welcomed his input or made him feel valued; they’d put his team in a subordinate position, and as a result he was not inclined to help the project succeed (Davis & Eisenhardt, 2011).

Leaders who fail to respect the contributions of their followers are not getting the full mindshare of their team members.

Finally, leaders can create an environment that supports partnership.

Uhl-Bien (2014) and colleagues summarize followership studies with a list of behaviors that followers and leaders practice. Notice how the followership role, as conceptualized below, is extremely active:

Followership behaviors Leadership behaviors
Proactive behavior Consultation with followers
Initiative taking Feedback seeking
Obedience Democratic decision making
Resistance when necessary Development of followers
Upward influence  
Feedback seeking  

In more practical terms, I try to remember what I call “The 5 Rs” in my own practice of both leadership and followership. These are:

  • Raise: Establish an expectation that everyone, regardless of position, will “raise a hand” when they have a concern or idea.
  • Respond: Respond to hand raisers every time. Leaders must foster a spirit of open-minded responsiveness to all raised hands.
  • Rotate: Whenever possible, rotate leadership of teams, meetings, or tasks so that more voices are heard. In its simplest form, “rotation” can refer to turn-taking in conversation, creating an environment where people have access to equal air time.
  • Review: Never hit auto pilot on a project. Create space for reflection that asks, Are we on track? Does everyone feel good about this? What needs to change? What could I do better?
  • Reward: Finally, reward everyone who is a good partner. Leaders like to be thanked; followers deserve to receive credit for their work.

Investing thought into the relationship between leaders and followers can help transform hierarchical relationships into powerful partnerships. It equips individuals to lead from the middle and makes organizations more effective as a result. It can help you wow your employer or stand up to a toxic leader. In short, followership is at least as important as leadership and it cannot be ignored. Leaders who try to ignore the importance of followers end up walking alone.


Amber Johnson is the Center’s Chief Communications Officer and a student in the Ph.D. program in values-driven leadership.


Chaleff, I., Hurwitz, S., & Thompson, R. L. (2017, October). The challenges and rewards of teaching followership. In M. Hurwitz (Chair). Panel conducted at the meeting of the International Leadership Association, Brussels, Belgium.

Davis, D. P., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (2011). Rotating leadership and collaborative innovation: Recombination processes in symbiotic relationships. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56(2), 159-201. doi: 10.1177/0001839211428131.

Kellerman, B. (20120. The End of Leadership. Harper Collins: New York, NY.

Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., and Carsten, M. K. (2014). Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 83-104.







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