The Leader-Follower Relationship Under the Microscope

Follower-Leader relationship
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Followership – what is it and why is this in a magazine for leaders? Let’s think about it; leadership research encompasses about 80% of the effort in traditional college settings and much of the continuing education for business professionals revolves around leadership, but realistically there are far more followers than leaders. Albeit, the term ‘followers’ often has a negative connotation; however, I challenge you to reconsider the importance of followers and the role they play in the leader-follower relationship. After all, it won’t take long to reflect on the leader and follower roles to realize that leaders were all followers at one time or another and followers often step into leadership roles; therefore, the roles are often interchangeable.

Warren Bennis along with other scholars have studied followership for approximately two decades. Robert Kelley was probably the first to write about followership in his article published in the Harvard Business Review titled, In Praise of Followers. Some of the other scholars focusing their research efforts on followership include Barbara Kellerman, Ira Chaleff, Jean Lipman-Blumen, Mary Uhl-Bien, Rushton Ricketson, and Thomas Sy. Kellerman is a professor at Harvard and she is doing much to continue the followership discussion.

Let’s flip the coin and look at the leader-follower relationship from the other side. Each scholar has attempted to examine followership from the perspective of the follower instead of the leader. Leadership studies are well documented throughout empirical research articles. Followership studies; however, are fairly new and these researchers are pioneering a way to understand and investigate the follower in a similar fashion to leadership studies.

Most researchers agree that followers play an important role in the leader-follower relationship. Just as there are different types of leaders, there are different types of followers.  Some are courageous and others are not. Other typologies include the alienated follower, conformist follower, exemplary follower, passive follower, and pragmatist follower described by Robert Kelley. Kelley has designed a followership style questionnaire to help identify the followership style of the participant. This survey is available online and a research project is underway if you would like to participate.

Kelley also described followership styles by using the following terms: Alienated, Pragmatic, Sheep, and Yes-People. These four styles were described in the book, The Art of Followership. The alienated followers are people that act as the devil’s advocate and question the direction of the leader. The pragmatic followers are the people that wait to see what everyone else will do. The sheep followers are the people that wait for the leader to tell them what to do. The yes-people are the active doers in the workplace.

business settingIra Chaleff also wrote about followership styles in his book, The Courageous Follower. Chaleff wrote about the implementer, individualist, partner, and resource. The implementer follower provides much support for the leader; however, they do not question the leader. The partner follower provides much support for the leader and they will challenge the leader if they believe the leader is not making wise choices. The resource follower will support the leader just enough to stay in their current role.

Courageous followers is a concept Ira Chaleff focuses on and brings us to question why some followers have courage to act when others do not. This concept alone provokes one to examine the leader-follower role to understand the complexity behind the relationship. As with any relationship, leaders have a preferred style of whom they work with and so do followers. Some relationships work better than others and some do not work well at all. It is recommended for leaders and followers to reflect on the attributes behind a successful leader-follower relationship.

With this initiative to understand more about the role of the follower, one can only speculate that (a) the term follower may no longer be viewed negatively and (b) the emphasis of the leader-follower relationship may become more insightful as both parties in the relationship are seen in a positive light for the elements they contribute to one another. I challenge you to think about this the next time you schedule your one-on-one with your staff or the next time you embark on hiring a new employee. What type of follower do you want on your team?


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About Debra Dean, Ph.D.

Dr. Dean is a graduate of Regent University. She is a Christian first and foremost, wife, mother, and currently serves as Adjunct Professor for several schools in addition to Business Transformation Director for a large financial services company. She enjoys being both scholar and practitioner where she can perform research and apply her findings in business settings. Her research interests include authenticity, cultural dimensions, followership, servant leadership, spiritual leadership, and workplace spirituality.

View all posts by Debra Dean, Ph.D. →

One Comment on “The Leader-Follower Relationship Under the Microscope”

  1. Very interesting article. I enjoyed thinking about all the roles I’ve played in different capacities, and this article has helped me to think more purposefully about the role I would be the most successful in. Ultimately, I would’ve been happy being King David’s wingman😄, I think that qualifies as the courageous follower:) Wonderful insight for the workplace!

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