“I am reminded how hollow the label of leadership sometimes is and how heroic followership can be.” – Warren Bennis
Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. (May 1, 2018)
Many of us miss a key point about the importance of followership. Indeed, most people hold a negative view of followership (Kelley, 2008). They can’t imagine anything good or positive that might come from the role of a follower.
However, conversations about leadership must include followership “because leaders neither exist nor act in a vacuum without followers” (Kelley, 2008, p. 5). To me, there can be no leader if there are no followers, and people will not follow you if you lack the ability to influence them to work toward a goal. Many of us miss a key point about the importance of followership. Indeed, most people hold a negative view of followership (Kelley, 2008). They can’t imagine anything good or positive that might come from the role of a follower.
Robert E. Kelley (2008), who is credited with pioneering the concept of followership, describes five styles of followership:
1. The sheep: they’re passive and look to the leader to guide & motivate them.
2. The yes-people: they’re positive and always on the leader’s side; but also look to the leader for direction & vision.
3. The alienated: they think for themselves, but are negative; skeptical/cynical; they view themselves as mavericks.
4. The pragmatics: they’re fence straddlers; they take a wait-and-see approach; they will go where the momentum is heading.
5. The star followers: they think independently; are active & positive. They do not accept the leader’s decision without evaluating it for themselves first. If they agree with the leader, the star followers will throw their full support behind the decision. If they disagree with the leader, star followers will offer constructive options/alternatives. They are often referred to as the go-to person or the leader’s right-hand person.
Kelley (2008) wrote that one question he asks of executives is, “If you could have an ideal mix of the five followership styles in your organization, what percentage of each style would you prefer?” He’s often amazed at how leaders say they want all yes-people.
“Their reasons are that (1) yes-people are “doers” who are willing to do the grunt work and who get the job done with little fuss; (2) yes-people have limited aspirations and will neither pressure the leader for promotions nor quit for better jobs elsewhere; and (3) yes-people are loyal and dependable” (Kelley, 2008, p. 13).
Kelley said it is rare to find leaders who prefer all “star followers.”
“Most executives fear that they can neither keep star followers challenged by the job nor satisfied with their role in the organization. They believe that star followers will grow bored and disillusioned, seeking greener pastures and leading to high turnover” (Kelley, 2008, p. 13).
Ironically, it is the star followers who help the organization perform better and more efficiently. In fact, we can make a very strong case that, “organizations with more star followers perform better because the star followers need not depend on the leader for direction or motivation. This reduces the transaction costs that hinder organizational success” (Kelley, 2008, p. 13).
Kelley, R. E. (2008). Rethinking Followership. In R. E. Riggio, I. Chaleff, & J. Lipman-Blumen (Eds.), The art of followership (pp. 5-15). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.