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Changing How We View Followership

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

In psychology and cognitive science, a schema describes a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. While attending and presenting at the first Global Followership Conference in July of 2019, I saw some of the conference staff wearing shirts with “Not just another F-word” printed on the back. This got me thinking about the current meaning or acceptances of “followership” in society in general, and specifically in leadership studies. I’ve been training in followership as a component of leadership for over twelve years, but recently began to focus on the influence relationship that followership brings. One of the core motives for the First Global Followership Conference held at the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, Canada was to look at followership differently, as more of an equal rather than a parent-child type of relationship.

The shirt made me reflect on society’s current thinking about followership, which seems more like an antonym of leadership rather than a partner/supporter of leadership. In the English language an antonym is a word opposite in meaning to another word. An example would be that slow is an antonym of fast. Even during my twelve years of teaching followership, there was always this “lesser than” attitude about followership to leadership.

Let's do a little test. For the words listed, please say the antonym or "opposite" of each word:

Word --> Antonym 1. Up ________ 2. Go ________ 3. Forward ________ 4. Leader ________ 5. Happy ________ 6. Smart ________

In each of these examples you can probably get the exact antonym listed in a thesaurus. If you did this quickly, you probably came up with these (or very similar) responses: 1. Down, 2. Stop, 3. Backward, 4. Follower, 5. Sad, 6. Dumb. If you look on, the antonym of “Leader” is listed as “Follower.” But is followership an antonym or “opposite” of leadership?

Which Do We Prefer?

Now for each pair, evaluate which one part of the pairs is usually preferred based on the typical use of the word. Of course, there are circumstances where you want the lesser preferred, but normally we would prefer to be happy over sad. We probably would rather be considered smart than dumb, skinny than fat and be termed a leader rather than a follower. This is our current schema, or pattern of thought about followership to leadership.

The pattern of thought about these word pairs shows our preference of one over the other. Let's look at each word and antonym pair.

Up vs. Down

The word "Up" and it's antonym "Down" are in opposing direction vertically. They are

opposites and when we consider how this term is generally used in business and in organizations, "Up" is usually preferred to "Down." We want to move "up the corporate ladder," or "have profit margins go up." People rarely say, "I think I'll try to move down in my skill level," or "down in my salary." See how we use up as preferred to down? This is a major concept in "loss aversion" but that is an article for another day!

Go vs. Stop

When we use the word "Go" it implies some action, some progress, some movement.

"Stop" usually means there is some danger, some reason not to proceed, or even that something is unwanted. In companies and organizations we say things like "go get 'em," or "going towards the goal." Would you rather be able to go, or "have to stop?" Even when to "Stop" may be the most prudent thing to do, it sometimes gives the connotation that someone doesn't know what they are doing, or can't make a decision, etc., whether or not that is the case. These words are also opposites as they imply movement or non-movement, progress or no progress.

Forward vs. Backward

Similar to "Go and "Stop," "Forward Vs. Backward" suggests some type of movement,

although this time in some linear fashion or on a continuum. We as a society seem to favor moving forward as opposed to moving backwards. We say things like, "let's help the company move forward." You usually don't hear people say "I want to go backwards in my career." So, generally this idea of forward movement is preferred over backward movement, especially when it comes to achieving goals and meeting needs, career, salary, positions, etc.

Happy vs. Sad

"Happy" and "Sad," are emotional opposites. When someone is happy there are usually

laughing, energetic, interactive with others and upbeat. When people are sad, they are usually more lethargic, secluded, dreary and depressed. Emotionally, it seems people prefer to be happy over sad. In fact, there are studies that show people who are "Happy" are more healthy, but that is not our focus here. When we think of Happy vs. Sad, we tend to prefer to be happy. We tend to gravitate towards people we find as happy. Although some people may cry or tear up when they are happy, the fact that they are so happy is even more inspiring.

Smart vs. Dumb

"Smart" and "Dumb" is another opposite pair that we can reflect on. We all would like to

be smart, and nobody wants to be viewed as dumb. Again with this example of an antonym we have a more closely related ability-based or behavior-based example of our preferences. Can you imagine walking into a room with some of the organization's executives and be introduced as one of the "not quite as smart as others" employees? Really, what would happen to our motivation, satisfaction and performance? What would be the perception of other employees? With this "Smart vs. Dumb" example we see that behaviors and movement and knowledge, skills or abilities also have a preferred way of being thought about by society.

When we consider each of these antonyms, we see a pattern of opposites, movement or non-movement, forces in opposition to the other, and maybe even differing goals. Now consider the difference in the pair of leader and follower, as compared to every other set of pairs.

Does Leader vs. Follower Continue This Pattern?

In the leader/follower pair, when you consider the actual behavior or movement or goals of that pair, they are almost always moving in the same direction. Leader/Follower have mutually beneficial or shared goals and are not in opposition to each other, but supportive and mutually dependent. In most leader/follower situations in business, government, churches, schools, etc., the direction is the same, there are shared goals, and the leaders and followers are mutually supportive and complimentary to each other.

So why do we consider the antonym or opposite of leader to be follower and visa versa? They are not actually in opposition of each other. What we should be doing is changing our schema, or plural, schemata or schema, and maybe even the English language, to stop thinking of followership as just the antonym or “F-word” of leadership, but more as a supportive component of leadership. Before we can change our thinking, we must change how we organize our pattern of thought or behavior, including how we think of followership.

A Different Schema to Consider: If we use a different schema for leadership and followership, that of a coin with two sides. One side is “heads”

(leadership) and the other is “tails,” (followership), but both sides hold the same “value” of the coin. When you flip the coin, no matter what side it lands on, the value of the other side is not less than or lost. The coin retains its value. In fact, the two sides of the coin may be different, but they are not separate and both sides are equally used when the coin is spent or saved. Just like leadership and followership in the same organization. They both benefit or suffer together because they share goals, direction and results and in fact are mutually dependent on the other side of the coin.

This schema gives us a different view and understanding of followership as one that is not in opposition to leadership, but in fact causes us to assume that they are mutually supportive and share the same goals.

Putting It All Together

Changing our mental schema of followership from being an opposite or antonym to leadership (with leadership as the preferred condition) to followership being a supportive, mutually aligned, valued and respected partnership, with shared goals and objectives, is the first step in creating a new direction for followership studies and leadership studies and training. By changing our mental image, our schemata to consider followership as "the other side of the coin," and "Not just another F-word" in leadership studies will change how we view followership and leadership. A new way of thinking about followership and leadership in society in general would greatly enhance the ability for training, succession planning, role-transition, and upward leadership in almost any organization.

About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the author of "Because Why?...Understanding Behavior In Exigencies." and of "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior," and Owner of CMF Leadership Consulting. Chris is a developer/trainer/consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations. Chris holds a Doctor of Education (Ed.D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service where he last served as the Assistant Division Commander of Investigations.

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