In Praise of Followers

Many leaders start out as good followers.

By PT Staff, published on September 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

From the kickball fields to corporate boardrooms, most leaders and
followers assume their roles with uncanny ease, seemingly born to fill
one position and no other. But the two ends of the power spectrum may be
more interchangeable and more interdependent than previously
thought.

"For too long we've made it appear that leadership is a phenomenon
that can arise only from a person designated as a leader," declares Edwin
R Hollander, Ph.D. In fact, many effective leaders evolve as a result of
the top-notch participation by dedicated followers.

Language may be one reason why the roles of kingpins and their
peons have been differentiated for so long. "Separating the concept of
participation with two different words--'leader' and 'follower'--obscures
the reality that, in any organizational setting, leaders also have to be
responsive to those above," says Hollander, a social organizational
psychologist at New York City's Baruch College. "Even a person at the top
of a corporation still has to be responsible to the board of
directors.'

The traditional notion that leaders are active and followers
passive is also mistaken and contributes to misconceptions about the
organizational functions of superiors and underlings. Behaviorists now
recognize that active followers influence leaders at every level of the
hierarchy, and that leadership itself is a process, not a person.

"Leaders do command greater attention and influence, but followers
affect and even constrain leaders' activity in more than passing ways,"
Hollander says. A top-notch follower, for example, makes leaders look
good by informing them about what's going on, performing duties without
being told, and taking initiative when necessary.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower's followship qualities were
so impressive that after 26 years of service, he was promoted from junior
staff officer to colonel to Commander of U.S. forces in Europe within 24
months, jumping two ranks and beating 366 eligible officers in the
process. Eisenhower's intelligence staff reports endeared him to his
superiors, but the trust and confidence he inspired among his fellow
soldiers as a follower also contributed to his future success as a
leader, observes Hollander.

The leadership/followership distinction appropriately blurs when
followers are given a stake in the decision-making process. "If you feel
like you're making input that matters, you may be inclined to exert
influence over others and take a leadership position" in the future,
Hollander argues. Authentic participation does not include "shams" like
suggestion boxes, he notes.

It may include working for a woman-run company. The merging of
leadership and followership roles occurs most often in settings that
promote discussion, encourage opinions, and distribute power. Those are
approaches associated with a "feminine" style of organization. As
Hollander agrees, "women are more imbued with being communicative and
involving others in ways that are less autocratic."