Leadership and Followership

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FollowershipThe concept of followership is popular in certain quarters today. Others refuse to call employees followers, feeling that such a label is disengaging. What do you think?

There are some strong arguments for followership, which claim that we can't understand leadership without it.

The Case For Followership

No one can lead without followers, any more than we can eat without eating something. Similarly, we can't sell a product without a buyer. Leading, eating and selling are relational concepts. They imply an object of some sort. You can no doubt think of many others. You can only love a thing, another person or your life. You can't love nothing. You can only hit something, drink something or influence another person. Influencing, leading and selling are all impacts on other people. Impact is itself a relational word, but clearly, falling objects can have an impact on other objects, like when you drop a book on your glasses, so being relational doesn't necessarily imply a relationship between people.

Still, this line of thinking strongly suggests that there can be no leaders without followers. Another argument that is often offered in support of followership is that people need to work much more closely today to get things done. The world is too complex for one person to sit on high and issue one-way orders to people to get work done. There needs to be two-way dialogue.

Defining Leadership

We can define leadership as the act of influencing people to change direction, either by example or by advocating a better way. Similarly, selling is the act of influencing people to buy a product or service. In both cases, we are defining something in terms of one person's impact on other people. Hence, it is impossible to claim that you are leading if no one is following.

The Case Against Followership

Do you believe that it is possible to show leadership bottom-up? Say, a front-line employee develops a new product idea and convinces management to adopt it. Is this not leadership? It involves challenging the status quo, standing up for one's beliefs and promoting them upwards. This is exactly how Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela showed leadership. They challenged the status quo, in their case prevailing attitudes and government policies. Yes, these great leaders showed leadership to those who joined them in their protests on the street, but they also had a leadership impact on the general population and on their respective governments.

However, if followership is a sensible concept, there can be no such thing as bottom-up leadership because all employees BY DEFINITION are followers in relation to their boss. In the words of Ira Chaleff, they are "courageous" followers when they challenge their boss, not leaders. But if the leadership of King, Gandhi and Mandela take the same form as that of employees challenging their bosses, then what are we to make of their leadership? Are they nothing more than "courageous" followers too?

A Better Way

There is a way to avoid the absurdity of calling all employees followers just because they report to a boss. But, to do so, we need to separate leadership from management. We need to say that being in charge of people means being a manager, not a leader. This makes employees subordinates, direct reports, associates, collaborators, team members or any other term you like, but not followers. However, when managers promote a new vision and employees buy into it, then they are following, but this is a discrete act not a role. Thus, on this view, both leading and following are occasional acts, not roles. Management is a role; leadership isn't.

Notice that the relational actions mentioned above: eating, drinking, selling and influencing are also occasional actions done outside of any role.

Outsider Leadership

Management is always done with people, but leadership can be shown at a distance by outsiders. Consider green leadership. When a green leader promotes some novel environment-friendly practices in one country that are adopted in another part of the world, this is leadership at a distance because the leader and those who follow don't work together. They might not even know each other. Bottom-up leadership and that shown by King, Gandhi and Mandela is also shown at a distance by outsiders. Gandhi protested non-violently against British occupation of India. He didn't manage a team of British government representatives to develop an independent India. So, it is possible to show leadership by successfully influencing people to change their ways even if you don't work with them.

Of course there needs to be a basis of shared values but the leader and those who are led don't need to work together. Managers do need to work closely with people who are getting some kind of work done, but it is arguable that this isn't leadership.

In conclusion, the concept of followership is based on a confusion of leadership and management. We need to get rid of followership to better engage employees, to show them more respect by conveying the impression that they are partners, not "followers" - a concept which suggests subservience, hence the need to invent an equally odd expression: the "courageous" follower.

So what? This debate is important because we need employees to be better engaged. We can applaud the efforts of the followership camp to highlight the importance of employees with regard to organizational prosperity but we need to see their use of the term "follower" as self-defeating because it demeans what we are trying to empower. We need to see how employees can be leaders, not just followers. They can lead, not just their own teams, but anyone in the organization, up and sideways who they can influence to think or act differently. Isn't this much more empowering than calling employees "followers"?

What are your thoughts? This issue is like abortion, people seem to feel quite strongly one way or another. Please use the comments box below to express your views on this topic.

Where do you want to go from here?

Want to read more on the relationship between vision and leadership? If leadership isn't just an influence process, then it's a role in a hierarchy, but this is biologically primitive. See Primitive Leadership for more on this topic. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Thought LeadershipBottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.

For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL