Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

December 2002
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Healthy Followers

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Followers are often ignored when organizational successes or failures are explained. This is because:

  1. Leaders are more visible than followers.
  2. Considerably more study has been done on leadership than on “followership.”
  3. We suffer from significant misconceptions about the power of followers. Too often we look upon followers as fairly benign participants in the organization who remain passive until they receive instructions from a leader and then proceed, dutifully and unquestioningly, to follow those instructions.

As a result we do not sufficiently appreciate the contribution that effective followers actually do make to organizational success. To be effective themselves, leaders must have effective followers!

An understanding of followership is necessary in the discussion of leadership for several reasons:

  1. Everyone – including leaders – is a follower at one time or another in their lives. Most individuals, even those in positions of high authority, have a supervisor of some kind. In fact, for many people it is not uncommon to switch between being a leader and being a follower several times during the course of a single day. For example, in an organization, middle managers answer to vice presidents, who answer to CEOs, who answer to boards of directors. Moreover, research on high-performance teams has demonstrated that the most successful teams are those that have a great deal of role switching among team members concerning who is serving in a leadership role at any given time.
  2. The relationship of influence between leader and follower is not a one-way street. Leaders influence followers, but they themselves are also influenced by their own followers. Or, at least they should be. Unilateral, “one-way” leadership is usually abusive leadership, not healthy leadership. A healthy relationship between leader and follower involves a mutual exchange of influence. Effective followers enhance their leaders; unhealthy followers can undermine otherwise good leadership.
  3. Many of the qualities that are desirable in a leader are also possessed by an effective follower. For example, most leaders would want their constituents to demonstrate initiative, be capable of independent thought, be committed to a shared vision and common goals, and demonstrate self-giving courage. Furthermore, an effective follower will not only enthusiastically support and encourage his leader, but he will also be capable of respectfully challenging the leader if his actions threaten the vision or values of the organization. All these characteristics are leadership characteristics. Thus, a healthy leader with healthy followers will achieve their shared vision together.
  4. To be both a good leader and a good follower is not easy. There is a great potential for role conflicts and ambiguities. Leaders are held responsible for everything that happens under their charge, but are also required to delegate much responsibility and authority to their constituents to empower them to act on their own. Leaders are also expected to teach and develop their followers which may involve building someone who will eventually take over part or all of the leader’s own position, whether or not the leader is ready for that to happen. It is difficult to balance these competing and often conflicting demands and carry out the dual roles of leader and follower effectively.

Consequently, leaders need to understand effective followership so that they can be better followers themselves, so they can help their constituents be better followers, and so they can help their followers be better leaders.

The popular conception that “everything depends on leadership” is not entirely correct. Without willing and effective followers, the greatest of leaders will fail.

The next several Leadership Letters will study this often-neglected subject.

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