Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

February 2003
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Kinds of Followers

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

The definition of a healthy human body is one in which all the parts function properly. If one part of the body does not function properly we consider the body to be sick or disabled. It is the same in the Body of Christ. For the church – or any Christian ministry or organization – to grow to maturity and to fulfill her purpose in God, every member must function properly.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph. 4:15-16)

For the vision of verse 15 to be fulfilled (“grow up into Him”) the condition of verse 16 must be met (“each part does its work”). Thus, it is not sufficient for the church to have healthy leaders; we must also have healthy followers – those who take responsibility to function. A healthy follower takes two kinds of responsibilities: to think and to act.

In The Power of Followership, Robert Kelley describes five kinds of followers, categorized according to these two dimensions – thinking and acting.

Do You Think?

The first dimension is the quality of independent, critical thinking versus dependent, uncritical thinking:

Do You Act?

The interaction of these two dimensions is shown in the following graphic, and determines whether the person is an alienated follower, a conformist, a passive follower, an effective follower, or a pragmatic survivor.

Kinds of Followers Quadrant

  1. The alienated follower is a passive yet independent, critical thinker. He thinks but does not act. He is a “cynic.” He may feel cheated or unappreciated by his organization. In the past he may have experienced setbacks or obstacles, perhaps promises broken by others. Often cynical in his attitude, the alienated follower is capable but unwilling to participate in nurturing the life of the organizational community. Usually he will dwell on the negatives and overlook the positives. Sadly, the alienated follower will often criticize the leader to others, without taking his complaints directly to the leader himself in a constructive, positive way.
  2. The conformist participates actively in organizational life, but he is a dependent, uncritical thinker. He acts with little thought. The conformist is a “yes man,” carrying out all orders without considering their consequences. In addition, he will frequently hide his weaknesses and cover his mistakes. His only concern is to avoid conflict. Authoritarian and abusive leaders prefer such followers. In addition, an organizational environment that is characterized by rigid rules that prohibit individual expression will suppress effective followership and lead to uncritical conformity.
  3. The passive follower is a “sheep.” He neither acts nor thinks. He is unenthusiastic and displays neither initiative nor a sense of responsibility. His activity is limited to what he is specifically told to do, and he accomplishes things only with a great deal of supervision. He leaves all the thinking to his leaders. Leaders who dominate and control their people and who punish mistakes often create such followers who are afraid to think or to take responsible action.
  4. The effective follower both a critical, independent thinker and active in the organization. Thinking and acting, he is a true “coworker.” Fundamentally committed to a purpose outside himself, he works creatively and enthusiastically toward achieving the organizational community’s goals. He is not afraid of taking intelligent risks; neither does he shy away from necessary conflicts. He has the courage to initiate change in the best interests of all. Such followers are essential for the organization to be effective. They are capable of self-leadership, they discern strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others, they are committed to the shared vision, and they work toward its fulfillment with energy, innovation and responsibility that are contagious. With such constituents, the church or ministry will experience a healthy “fit” between the community vision and the individual visions.
  5. The pragmatic survivor has qualities of all four extremes, depending on which style aligns best with the prevailing situation. He is somewhat of a “politician.” Perpetually testing the wind, he will use whatever style benefits his own agenda and minimizes risk. Within any given organization, 25 to 35 percent of the people tend to be pragmatic survivors. On the positive side, when the organization is going through difficult times such a follower may make a positive contribution since he knows “how to work the system to get things done.” Negatively, this same behavior can be interpreted – often correctly – as “playing political games,” or adjusting to maximize his own self-interest.

In our next Letter we will begin to study the characteristics of healthy followers.

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