The study of leadership (leaderology) has long fixated on the characteristics, behaviors, and strategies of those in positions of authority, but a comprehensive understanding necessitates a closer examination of the individuals known as followers and how they are an essential part within the leadership process. This article explores the symbiotic relationship between leadership and followership, arguing that to truly grasp the nuances of effective leadership, scholars and practitioners alike must acknowledge the integral role played by followers. By embracing followership within the study of leadership, we uncover a more holistic perspective that unveils the interdependence and reciprocal influence between leaders and followers, fostering a foundation for sustainable and adaptive organizational success.
Why people think of leadership and followership as separate
The perception of leadership and followership as separate entities can be attributed to historical and traditional views of hierarchical structures and organizational dynamics. Some of these include the hierarchical paradigm, Role definitions, cultural and educational influences, language and terminology and historical leadership models. Let’s take a quick look at each:
Traditional organizational structures often emphasize a top-down hierarchy where leaders are at the top, and followers are beneath them. This perspective reinforces the idea of a clear separation between those who lead and those who follow. Top-down hierarchical organizations are characterized by a clear chain of command, where authority and decision-making flow from the top levels of management down to the lower levels. Here are some examples of organizations that traditionally exhibit a top-down hierarchical structure:
Military Organizations: Military forces around the world typically have a strong hierarchical structure, with clear ranks and a well-defined chain of command. Orders and directives are issued from higher-ranking officers to lower-ranking personnel.
Government Agencies: Many government agencies, especially those with bureaucratic structures, often follow a top-down approach. Decision-making authority usually resides with top-level officials, and directives are implemented by lower-level employees.
Large Corporations: Traditional large corporations often have a hierarchical structure. The CEO or president sits at the top, followed by executive leadership, middle management, and then frontline employees. Information and directives generally flow from the top down.
Multinational Corporations (MNCs): Large multinational corporations often adopt a hierarchical structure to manage complex operations across different regions. The central headquarters holds decision-making authority, and regional or subsidiary offices follow directives from the top.
Religious Organizations and Theocracies: Some religious institutions have a hierarchical structure, with a single leader or a small group of leaders at the top who make decisions for the entire organization. Lower-ranking members may have specific roles and responsibilities but operate under the guidance of higher authorities.
Educational Institutions: Educational organizations, such as universities or school districts, often have a hierarchical structure. Administration and decision-making authority typically rest with top-level administrators, such as presidents, chancellors, or school principals.
Hospitals and Healthcare Organizations: Healthcare institutions can have a hierarchical structure with executive leadership at the top, followed by layers of management, medical professionals, and support staff.
Hierarchical structures tend to reaffirm that there are clear lines of authority. Another part of the structure that creates the perception that leadership and followership are separate is Role definition.
Role Definitions: Many organizations have specific roles and job descriptions that outline leadership positions (managers, executives) and follower positions (supervisors, employees, team members). This formal structuring contributes to the perception of a clear divide between leaders and followers. Also, the FLSA exempt status can contribute to the separation of roles between management and other employees. The separation of roles between exempt and non-exempt employees is a regulatory distinction that helps define compensation practices and overtime eligibility within an organization.
Cultural and Educational Influences: From an early age, individuals are exposed to educational and cultural narratives that often emphasize leadership as a position of authority and followership as a role of compliance. This reinforcement contributes to the perception of these roles as separate.
Language and Terminology: The language used in organizational contexts often reinforces the idea of a leadership-follower dichotomy. Terms such as "boss" and "subordinate" or "leader" and "follower" imply a clear distinction between those who lead and those who follow. Language and terminology play a significant role in shaping perceptions, expectations, and dynamics within organizations. The way leaders and followers are referred to can reinforce traditional hierarchical structures and contribute to a perception of separation of roles.
Historical Leadership Models: Traditional leadership models, such as the autocratic or transactional models, often focus on the leader's authority and control. This emphasis on the leader's role may lead to a perception that followership is a passive role.
But This Perception is Changing!
Contemporary perspectives on leadership and followership are increasingly recognizing the importance of followership and view it as an active and dynamic role. A shift towards a more integrated view is currently occurring. The reasons for this shift include shared leadership/followership, recognition of a more active followership component, team-based structures, and a more complex and dynamic environment. Let’s first look at shared leadership/followership.
Shared Leadership/Followership: Contemporary leadership theories, such as transformational and servant leadership, emphasize collaboration and shared decision-making between leader and follower. In these models, leadership and followership are distributed among team members, blurring the lines between leaders and followers.
Recognition of Active Followership: Followers are not passive entities; they actively contribute to the success of the organization frequently more than the leadership. Recognizing the importance of active followership challenges the notion of a strict division between leaders and followers. An emerging concept is that of a single person who must lead and follow simultaneously.
Team-Based Structures: Many modern organizations adopt team-based structures where individuals take on different leadership/followership roles based on their expertise and the needs of the team. In such structures, individuals may transition between leadership and followership roles.
Complex and Dynamic Environments: In today's fast-paced and complex work environments, adaptability and collaboration are essential. Leaders and followers must be responsive to the input of team members, and team members often take on leadership responsibilities in specific areas of expertise.
While historical and traditional perspectives may have contributed to the perception of leadership and followership as separate, there is a fast-growing recognition of the interconnected and dynamic nature of these roles. Modern organizational dynamics often require individuals to navigate fluid roles where leadership and followership are not rigidly defined but rather adapt to the needs of the situation.
An Influential Followership Milestone:
One influential milestone in the development of followership studies was the publication of Robert Kelley's article "In Praise of Followers" in the Harvard Business Review in 1988. Kelley's work highlighted the positive qualities of effective followers and challenged the prevailing notion that effective followership was synonymous with passive obedience.
Since then, scholars from various disciplines, including organizational psychology, management, and leadership studies, have contributed to the growing body of literature on followership. Today, followership is recognized as a crucial component of the leadership process, and researchers continue to explore the complexities of followership dynamics and its impact on organizational outcomes.
Followership is One of Three Parts of the Leadership Process:
The leadership process is a complex and dynamic interaction between leaders, followers, and the situation or context in which they operate. Leaderology theories often consider these three components as integral to realizing an effective leadership process and result. Let's explore how each element contributes to the leadership process:
Part 1: The Leader: Leader(s) play a focal role in the leadership process. They provide direction, guidance, vision and influence for the group or organization. A leaders technique, attributes, and especially behaviors of the leader can significantly influence the effectiveness of the leadership process. Different leaderology theories emphasize various aspects of leadership, such as transformational, transactional, servant, or charismatic leadership, however there is no specific style or method that encompasses everything a leader may need to do.
Part 2: The Follower: Follower(s) are individuals or groups who accept the leader's influence and direction. Followers play a crucial role in the success of the leadership process. The characteristics, needs, and motivations of followers can impact how they respond to a leaders attempt to influence. The concept of "followership" recognizes that followers are not passive recipients but active participants in the leadership process, frequently more impactful and influential than the leader(s). They contribute their skills, ideas, and efforts to achieve common goals, and may act like the leader if the situation.
Part 3: The Situation or Context: The leadership process is highly dependent on the context or situation in which it occurs. Different situations may require different approaches from both leaders and followers. Effective leadership requires the leaders and followers adjust their behavior dependent on the situations. Many people are in roles where they are both leading and following simultaneously. Environmental factors, organizational culture, and external influences can shape the leadership/followership dynamics. Adapting strategies to the specific situation is crucial for success.
Effective leadership involves a dynamic interplay between leaders, followers, and the situational context. Successful leaders recognize the importance of understanding and adapting to the needs and characteristics of their followers, as well as adjusting their leadership style based on the demands of the situation. The interaction between these three elements is complex and ever-changing, requiring leaders to be flexible, perceptive, and responsive to foster positive outcomes.
Why We Need All Three Elements for The Leadership Process
All three elements—leader, follower, and situation—are integral to the leadership process because they interact in a dynamic and interdependent manner. Each element brings unique characteristics and influences on the leadership process dynamic, and their combined impact shapes the overall effectiveness of the leadership/followership process. Some of the reasons why all three elements or parts are essential include interdependence, mutual influence, adaptability, the complexity of the organization and achieving the common goals.
Interdependence: Leaders depend on followers to achieve organizational goals, and followers, in turn, rely on leaders for guidance, direction, influence and a myriad of other factors. The relationship is reciprocal, with each side influencing the other. The situation or context sets the stage for leadership/followership interactions. Different situations require different leadership/followership approaches, and leaders/followers must adapt their strategies to match the circumstances to achieve the desired.
Mutual Influence: The leader influences the followers through their vision, values, and actions. However, followers also influence leaders through their responses, feedback, and contributions. The situation influences both leaders and followers, shaping their behaviors and decisions. Leaders may need to adjust their strategies based on the demands and constraints of the situation, while followers may respond differently depending on the context. In many instances the same person may need to act in a leading and following manner simultaneously. These “liminal space” positions must navigate both leader and follower roles through their behavior.
Adaptability: Effective leadership/followership requires adaptability. Both leaders and followers must be flexible in their approach to accommodate the needs and characteristics of others and adjust to varying situations. Situations can change, and successful leaders and followers need to recognize these changes and modify their behaviors accordingly. A leadership/followership behavior or response that works well in one situation may not be as effective in another.
Complexity of Organizations: Organizations are complex systems with diverse individuals, varied tasks, and dynamic environments. Effective leadership/followership processes must navigate this complexity, requiring a consideration of multiple factors simultaneously. The interaction between leaders, followers, and the situation reflects the multifaceted nature of organizational life.
Achieving Common Goals: The leadership/followership process is ultimately about achieving common goals. Leaders, followers, and the situation must align toward the same objectives for the leadership process to be successful. Generally speaking, leaders set the vision and direction, provide resources and materials, followers contribute their skills and efforts, and the situation provides the context within both leaders and followers operate and which goals are pursued. It is important to note here that followers should also be prepared to act as the leader if the situation requires it, and the leader may take a more participative follower role.
Putting It All Together:
While followership is part of the leadership process, the integration of leader, follower, and situation are necessary for a comprehensive understanding of the leadership/followership process. In recognizing the interdependence and mutual influence among these elements allows leaders and followers to navigate the complexities of organizational dynamics and adapt their approach to foster success. The leadership/followership process is a dynamic and interactive process that involves continuous adjustments and considerations of all three components. You can't have a leadership process without followers and followership, which is why followership belongs within leaderology (the study of leadership).
About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is a Leaderologist II and Vice President of the National Leaderology Association (NLA), the owner of CMF Leadership Consulting, and is currently the Business/HR Manager for a District Attorney’s office in California. Chris holds a Doctor of Education (Ed. D), M.A. and B.A. all in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is a developer, trainer, consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations since 2010. Chris is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a former National Instructor for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and California P.O.S.T. leadership and supervisory Courses. Chris 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." Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service leading such teams as the Homicide Team, the Hostage Negotiations Team, the Street-Level Drug Team, and the School Police Officer Team.