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It might sound counterintuitive, but, followers do not always follow, any more than leaders always lead. Without dwelling on the semantics, I define followers not according to what they do, but to who they are. Followers are subordinates. In contrast to their superiors, their leaders, followers have, or they ostensibly have, little or no power, authority or influence. Therefore, they usually, but not invariably, fall into line. Followership, in turn, is simply the obverse of leadership. It implies a relationship of some sort between followers and leaders - between subordinates and their superiors - and a response of the former to the latter.
Some forty or fifty years ago leadership became an “industry” – a burgeoning profit-making business for the benefit of countless institutions and individuals, ranging from academics to administrators, from consultants to coaches. But as an area of inquiry, and as an area of pedagogy, followership has always lagged badly behind. Though I have long thought followers the natural, necessary, obverse of leaders, the industry has continued almost willfully to ignore followers’ critical role. In fact, when my book, Followership, was originally published in 2008, the word was still so unusual and uncommon that when I typed it into my computer, it signaled a misspelling. Well, those days at least are over. Though “followership” remains still relatively an unfamiliar conception, the word has at least entered our lexicon.
Followership and followers have become, then, to a modest degree, normalized. But, despite this, our fixations on leadership and leaders remain. They remain despite the overwhelming evidence that in the 21st century it has become obvious that followers can and often do make a difference, sometimes a big difference. As I define the word, followers cannot have authority. But, they can and increasingly they do have power and influence. Moreover, with every passing decade they become more important than they were before. There are two main explanations for what’s happening: first, changes in culture; second, advances in technology.
Changes in culture are always difficult and often even impossible to pinpoint. But the revelation, in early 1998, that President Bill Clinton had had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, is as good a watershed moment as any. Never in American history had the chief executive (leader) been so deeply humiliated. Never in American history had ordinary people (followers) felt so entitled to private information about a public official. And never in American history had the distance in status between the president and his constituents been so diminished.
Advances in technology are easier to catalogue. Suffice to say here that social media particularly – though they have played a major role in our lives for only about a decade – has changed forever the dynamic between leaders and followers. Put simply, because social media provide followers with a voice they never had before, one potentially as ubiquitous as instantaneous, they bestow on followers a heft they never had before. Ergo, social media embolden followers to pressure leaders, to push leaders as they never have previously been pressured or pushed. Still wonder why authoritarian governments block the internet wherever and whenever they can? Still wonder why China has invested so heavily in a system of internet censorship now reputed to be the most stringent and extensive in the world?
Given that in liberal democracies leaders will continue to have less power and influence than they used to have, and followers more, what are the practical implications of this trend? Here five that are worthy of note:
Decline of authority. Though the leadership industry continues widely and even blithely to ignore it, the evidence of a decline of authority is compelling. Harvard University, where I teach, is a case in point. In July 2019, in consequence of protests both within the school and without, the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School felt obliged within days to withdraw the offer of a fellowship to the former governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, who had been closely tied to the water crisis in Flint. Another dramatic example of follower power – also in July 2019 – was the government’s response to the huge and historically unprecedented protests in Hong Kong. China-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, was forced to declare that the widely despised extradition bill, which she had strongly supported, was “dead.” Of course, this drama is not yet over. Should the massive protests in Hong Kong continue, how the government of China will respond cannot yet be known.
Rise of animosity. Because people in positions of authority are relatively weaker than they were, everyone else, various stakeholders, are, obviously, relatively stronger. But their being stronger makes them more fractious – if only because large numbers of different people with large numbers of different interests are now feeling entitled and emboldened to make their multiple claims. For example, in the United Kingdom as in the United States there are now enormous political and cultural divides. In the UK the divide is between Brexiteers and those who strongly oppose exiting the European Union. In the US the divide is perhaps most starkly in evidence between those who constitute Donald Trump’s devoted “base” and those who fervently oppose the sitting American president.
Dominance of minority. Weak leaders enable followers who are especially impassioned to hold great sway – even when their numbers are small. Think of the so-called “yellow vests” in France, who in recent months managed not only to deface the streets of Paris but to derail the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Or think of that small band of Google workers who this past June collaborated with activists and investors to demand the company be more transparent and to insist it change policies on issues ranging from sexual harassment to working with and for, China.
Leaders on a leash. Given their now often embattled state, being a leader is less fun, and less secure, than it used to be. While the financial incentives tend still to be strong, especially in the private sector, other traditional incentives – including respect, deference and status – tend to be less strong. Even powerful leaders are being obliged to cope with large numbers of clamoring and critical clients, customers and constituents – stakeholders who far exceed their previous counterparts in the variety and volume of their demands. So, no accident that CEO terms tend to be considerably shorter than they used to be, and outright dismissals considerably more frequent. In fact, “median [CEO] tenure has fallen a full year since 2013.” Nor is the nonprofit sector exempt from the overarching trends that I describe. The most recent CEO of Planned Parenthood proved able to hold on to her job for just eight months.
Contextual consciousness. For some time now I have argued that leadership is a system, not a person. The leadership system has three parts, each of which is equally important: leaders, followers and contexts. Though becoming contextually conscious has never been central to learning how to lead, it is becoming increasingly apparent that learning how to lead without developing a modicum of contextual awareness is both ridiculous and risky. Technologies alone are changing so quickly and dramatically that to presume to lead without having some conception of, for example, the possible if not probable implications for organizations of artificial intelligence, is likely to be as misguided as mistaken.
Of course, leaders having less power and influence and followers having more has implications that not only are practical, but moral. What then are some of the moral implications of this change in the leader-follower dynamic?
The individual responsibility of followers. Given that those who are not in positions of authority have more power and influence than ever, every single sentient individual is morally obligated to play a participatory role. Being a bystander will not suffice in circumstances within which good outcomes depend not only on people highly positioned, but on ordinary people being willing to assume some level of responsibility for what happens. History is replete with examples of what goes wrong when individual answerability is abdicated. At a moment in history when liberal democracy itself is under attack, such abdication is unconscionable. Moreover, at a moment in history when innovation and entrepreneurship have become critical to the common good, the participation of the individual is essential.
The collective accountability of leaders. Given that followers – especially those who are younger – now want, expect and increasingly demand some level of participation in most organizations, the literature on leadership is beginning to address the importance of engaged employees. By and large though, their engagement is still seen primarily as the employer’s responsibility (the leader’s), not the employee’s (the follower’s). It is precisely because of this conventional view that what I describe as collective accountability presents a challenge to those at the top at least as much as to those in the middle and at the bottom. As one researcher put it, it is the responsibility of leaders to encourage engaged followers because “engagement fosters creativity, innovation, accountability, agility and psychological safety.”
The focus on followers. Implicit in the growing if still modest interest in followers is the implication that the leadership industry is now obliged – for moral, intellectual and practical reasons – to pay them some level of attention. A recent article on Forbes.com aimed at senior practitioners went so far as to be titled, “Why Your 2019 Focus Should Be on Followership, Not Leadership.” And while I disagree with the definition of followership provided by the author –the “capacity or willingness to follow a leader” – his emphasis nevertheless was on the importance of followers even in comparison with leaders. “I’d argue that, if done right, focusing on followership [as opposed to leadership] may lead to better outcomes in the long-run.” I would add that while this expert’s primary interest is in the well-being of the organization, my interest is equally in the well-being of those who people it, including employees who are other than leaders and managers.
Rethinking assessing. To the extent that leadership professionals assess at all, their focus is on leaders, not followers. To be clear, everyone in the business of developing leaders knows that our measures for, for example, assessing the effectiveness of leadership programs are mostly meager. Ostensibly objective assessments of the effectiveness of leaders, and of how ethical they are, do a similarly poor job of predicting the leader’s long-term performance. And the effectiveness of our teaching, consulting and coaching is even more difficult to determine. Withal, notwithstanding the shortcomings of the measurements, so long as leaders are assessed, followers should be assessed as well. At a minimum, assessing followers will draw attention to the truism that followers are important, not just leaders.
Reinventing learning. To the degree that my fundamental claim – that followers are more important now than they ever were before – has merit, the leadership industry has an obligation to consider the implications. So long as there persists the presumption that good leadership can be taught, and that good leadership ought to be taught, the same should apply to good followership. Developing a curriculum that includes learning the fundamentals of followership and learning what constitutes a follower who is as ethical as effective, is not rocket science. There is, to take just a single example, a considerable literature on obedience to authority that is directly relevant. If we believe that people without obvious sources of power, authority and influence matter and, especially, if we believe, as do I, that they will matter more even in the third decade of the 21st century than they did in the second, then it behooves leadership teachers, coaches and consultants to pay heightened attention to their pedagogies – pedagogies that should include among other things the principles of good followership along with those of good leadership.
In the last couple of years, when I give a talk about leadership, more likely than not I’m asked about Donald Trump. In general, both his supporters and detractors perceive him as an anomaly, so they wonder where he came from, how he got to become American president and what he did to refashion the Republican Party in his own image. I explain that it’s impossible to understand what happened by looking through the lens of only one man, the leader. To nudge my listener-learners along, I’ll sometimes divide Trump’s followers into two groups. The smaller group includes those who concluded that it was in their interest to remain in a relationship with him for transactional reasons - for example, most Republican members of congress. The larger group consists of those who are true believers, those who remain personally and politically in the thrall of this man particularly, this leader particularly – most obviously Trump’s so-called “base.”
As it turns out, it’s not easy to pry people from their fixation on President Trump. Nevertheless, I try. I try to educate people to the idea that Americans who follow where he leads are as responsible as is the president for the future of their country.
Kellerman, B, Bad Leadership, (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004).
Kellerman, B, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, (Harvard Business Press, 2008).
Kellerman, B, The End of Leadership, (HarperCollins, 2012).
Kellerman, B, Professionalizing Leadership, (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Robert J. Allio, “Barbara Kellerman: there’s a better way to train leaders,” Strategy & Leadership interview, Vol. 46, No. 6 (2018).
Kellerman, B. (2008) Followership, see note 2.
Kellerman, B. (2012), The End of Leadership, see note 3.
Dan Marcec, Equilar, February 12, 2018.
Kellerman, B. (2016), “Leadership – It's a System, Not a Person!” www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/DAED_a_00399?journalCode=daed
Sasaki, J. and Royal, K. (2019) “Engaged followership: the foundation of successful leaders,” Workplace, July, www.gallup.com/workplace/260561/engaged-followership-foundation-successful-leaders.aspx
Giardino, T.J., (2019) “Why your 2019 focus should be on followership, not leadership,” Forbes.com, www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2019/01/30/why-your-2019-focus-should-be-on-followership-not-leadership/#64fe799c253a
About the author
Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at the Kennedy School of Harvard University (Barbara_Kellerman@hks.harvard.edu), has written a series of provocative books examining leadership, followership and the training business: Bad Leadership in 2004, Followership in 2008, The End of Leadership in 2012 and Professionalizing Leadership in 2018. She was interviewed in Strategy & Leadership Vol. 46, No. 6..