In Praise of Followers

Many leaders start out as good followers.

By PT Staff, published 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."