Follow the Leader

There is a place for rational submission, somewhere.

Posted Jul 14, 2019

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

[I am] a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord. –Joseph Ratzinger, on becoming Pope Benedict XVI

Follow the leader
Do as I do
When I've had my turn at being leader it's over to you. —
The Wiggles

A psychology of leadership with nothing to say about followership is like a dog without a bone, like matzo ball soup without matzo balls, like a yang without a yin. The presence of leaders entails the presence of followers. Yet, as Bastardoz & van Vugt (BV), 2019, observe, theory and research have been leader-centric. By necessity, BV published their insightful article on followership in The Leadership Quarterly, for there is no Followership Quarterly.

By leadership-centricity BV mean the field’s unrelenting focus on leaders, who they are and what they do, and why all the other theories of leadership are wrong. Leadership-centricity is akin to scholars’ romance with leadership (Meindl, Erlich, & Dukerich, 1985), but broader. The presence of followers is often taken for granted and left unstudied, which implies that followers are seen as passive. There is just not much that can be said about them. Or so it seems. There is, of course, a tradition of work on behavioral exchanges between leaders and followers (Blau, 1964), including publications in The Leadership Quarterly (Graen & Ulh-Bien, 1995).

Still, BV have a point. The fascination with leaders and the neglect of followers is quite pervasive. BV seek a fresh start by casting followers as active participants in games of leader- and followership, and as basically rational people who under many conditions strategically choose to follow to their own advantage. Indeed, BV suggest that being a follower is the “default setting in our brain” (p. 82). This may be so because most of us are followers most of the time. With rare (and weird) exceptions, social organization is pyramidal, with the extent of one’s power being negatively correlated with one’s likelihood of getting it (Pleskac & Hertwig, 2014). This should say enough, but BV add that there are powerful motives supporting followership, chief among them the need to belong. Leaders stand apart; they pay a social price for their power. Those who seek positions of strong leadership pay for power with a loss of social embeddedness and affiliation. Of course, effective leaders gain social rewards in the currency of respect and gratitude, but they face an ugly discounting dilemma: Are these smiles, gifts, and sexual favors honest signs of love, or are they strategic maneuvers in the others’ self-interest (Inesi, Gruenfeld, & Galinsky, 2012)?

Besides reviewing various incentives to seek leader- or followership, BV note that certain physical and psychological characteristics nudge a person one way or another. Compared with leaders, followers have less physical capital in height and strength, and less psychological capital in sociability, agreeableness, and competence (note that these differences are a ‘by and large’ kind of affairs). When clear individual differences exist and are known, and when leadership is not expected to be dominance-driven and coercive, people can efficiently sort themselves into these two roles. Up to this point, game theory contributes little beyond common sense. The plot thickens when relevant individual differences are not readily perceived, and when preferences intersect in such a way that there is no dominating strategy, that is, when a person cannot rationally choose to pursue either leadership or followership no matter what. 

BV ask us to consider three classic non-cooperative games: The Stag Hunt, the Battle of the Sexes, and Chicken. In Stag, you have a weak incentive to cooperate as the payoff for mutual cooperation is the best anyone can do. Yet, you may defect out of fear that the other defects, and lone defection is the worst; hence the dilemma. Curiously, Stag does not model either leadership or followership. Once the hunting party is assembled in the wild, a leader may emerge to slay the beast, but lies beyond the realm of the game. Here, the optimal case of mutual cooperation is an egalitarian affair.

Sexes is a better model. Jack and Jill are happier in the each other’s company than alone. They can go to enjoy Wagner or Strauss, but they differ in their preference ranking of the romantic to the modern. Sexes is no challenge if it is repeated; just roll a die to decide which composer to hear first and then take turns. If they can go out only once, Jack and Jill obviously have other problems. Classic game theory offers the rather lame advice to roll the die, giving our couple the certainty than one of them will be relatively disappointed. Rogue game theory – in Schelling’s tradition – casts the swifter partner as the winner (leader), especially if there is a precommitment (“Honey, I already bought the tickets to the Ring!”). The gamble is that the pleasures will outweigh the resentments. The payoff structure of Sexes says that they do.

Chicken, slyly re-named as the leader game by BV, puts the players on a collision course – if not literally in the James Dean tradition – then certainly figuratively. Playing for the leadership role is tantamount to the strategy of defection, and accepting the followership role amounts to submission. Mutual defection is catastrophic. If players knew the other’s strategy, they would do the opposite, but if they do not, they are back to die rolling or pulling a Schelling. Note that in Chicken, submission has a certain non-probabilistic appeal. A general wish to avoid the worst is sufficient for the decision to follow. No other particular psychological needs or evolutionary defaults are necessary. 

BV’s article is an excellent read and a timely corrective to the field’s and the public’s obsession with leadership. The cultural climate of the United States is not likely to take much notice or grow towards a more balanced outlook any time soon, however. The young will continue to be encouraged to develop and display their leadership potential. This would be fine if they were provided with the full picture, if they were helped to understand that the equation of leadership with winning and followership with losing is false. In the mouths of educators, this equation is a lie.

Despite its general excellence, BV’s article is bit of a disappointment, though, because it does not break any new game-theoretic ground. The novel-looking Leader Game is, after all, just another chicken crossing the road. See Krueger (2011) for an earlier linkage between chickenship and followership, or Krueger (2014) for a Theory-Of-Moves perspective on leader- and followership.

In the epigraph, J. Ratzinger, for his part, expressed a leader’s humility in a way that transcends the dialectic of leaders and followers. It is a rather elegant rhetorical move. Far be it from me to question his sincerity.

Hoca & Taleb

This reflection on leader- and followership would not be complete if we did not acknowledge that the identification of leaders and followers with different people is a convenient simplification. We have already seen that one is not defined without the other; more: often we play both roles at once, as when we pay the other to guide us. Teacher and student, counselor and client, sultan and vizier; power and submission are all mixed up.


Bastardoz, N., & van Vught, M. (2019). The nature of followership: Evolutionary analysis and review. The Leadership Quarterly, 30, 81-95.

Blau, P. M. (1964). Exchange and power in social life. New York: Wiley.

Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader–member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. The Leadership Quarterly, 6, 219-247.

Inesi, M. E., Gruenfeld, D. H & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others’ generous acts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 795-803.

Krueger, J. I. (2011). Of entrepreneurs and chickens. Psychology Today Online.

Krueger, J. I. (2014). How Robinson Crusoe managed his Man Friday. Psychology Today Online.

Meindl, J.R., Erlich, S.B., & Dukerich, J.M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.

Pleskac, T. J., & Hertwig, R. (2014). Ecologically rational choice and the structure of the environment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 2000-2019.