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What is Followership?

Followership is all the rage today. We are encouraged to study it for two reasons. First: leadership implies followership; you're not leading if no one is following. Second: leaders and followers now work closely together. Leadership is a relationship, so the argument goes.

Proponents of followership rightly recognize that employees today play a big part in organizational success, that it's not ALL about the leader. We certainly place far too much emphasis on the leader alone to understand why some organizations are more successful than others, Steve Jobs with Apple, for example.

However, there is a very contentious issue at stake here - the language of followership suggests subservience. No doubt employees should take more ownership and be as proactive as Ira Chaleff's "courageous followers." But language matters, and followership is an unfortunate choice of words. To address this issue we need to see how followership rests on a confused notion of leadership. But, first, is there a better way to think of employees than as either followers or subordinates?

How Should Employees Behave?

Employees want to achieve their full potential and be full contributors. They want to be engaged and valued, to feel that they are making a worthwhile contribution. Unfortunately the language of leadership makes employees feel more like passengers than owners of an organization's future. With declining loyalty, they have more interest in their own careers than in the future of any one organization.

Employees have two agendas: (1) they want to be successful as individuals and (2) they want to belong and to share in success with others. The shared success agenda is captured by terminology such as "team members" and "collaborators". To capture the individual agenda, employees should be regarded as self-employed business people supplying services to internal customers such as their managers.

Employees as Suppliers

When employees regard themselves as running their own businesses, they become more proactive in helping their customers (managers) succeed. The employee mindset fosters a passive attitude toward career advancement. All they can do is work hard and hope to be noticed. But what owner of a retail store would just open the doors and hope customers show up?

Employees with an entrepreneurial mindset proactively address the needs of their bosses and other internal customers. By gradually taking on new responsibilities and shedding others, they shift their "business" in new directions. It's common for a job to morph into something else over time. Entrepreneurial employees strive to make this happen proactively.

This addresses the "What's in it for me? question. Simply encouraging followers to take more responsibility and be courageous fails to answer this question. However, for employees to change the way they behave to this extent requires a large scale culture change. Employees shouldn't be expected to make such a major change in a vacuum with no organizational support. (For more on how employees can proactively engage themselves, see Engage Yourself!

Leadership and Management Without Followership

To break our fixation with followership, we need a new way of thinking about leadership and management. When we recognize that executives are really managers, there is no longer any need to talk of followers. Managers have subordinates, team members or associates, not followers. Leadership is an occasional act of influence, one that promotes a better way. Hence there are only acts of leading and acts of following, no leadership or followership roles. A CEO might promote a new vision over a period of a few months. As soon as prospective followers buy the vision, this leadership act is over.

Leadership, like all forms of influence, can be shown at a distance, such as selling on eBay. When Al Gore promotes green practices, there may be communities, organizations or individuals all over the globe who follow his lead without ever knowing him. This shows not only that leading and following don't necessarily occur between people who actually work together, but also that leading and following are not roles. An act of following is no more a role than is an act of buying.

Conversely, management is a role with team members as role occupants, but employees can be better empowered and proactive without calling them followers. We are not committed to talk of followership if we recognize that it is managers who need to get work done through people. (For more on this way of viewing leadership and management, see Leadership vs ManagementNo Leaders, No Managers, for starters.)

The Follower as Leader

In his book, The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff argues that followers should be courageous to challenge upwards if they disagree with a management decision. But, if leadership is an act of influence that anyone can show, then employees are showing leadership upwards when they challenge their boss and the boss follows their suggestion.

Bottom line: employees who challenge upwards are not courageous followers but courageously showing leadership. The call for courage is appropriate but all leadership, based on challenging the status quo, requires courage.

When Martin Luther King challenged governmental authority over segregation on buses, he showed the courage of a leader, not that of a follower. With a hierarchical view of organizations, employees can only be followers, they can't show leadership bottom-up. How disempowering is that?

The followership idea also rests on the confused notion that leadership is a relationship. Leaders and followers must work much more closely together today, so the argument goes. Defenders of the leadership-as-relationship idea argue that all organizational achievement is a joint effort of leaders and followers not a one-way influence process.

Why Leadership is not a Relationship

The truth is that leadership is a relational term. But then so are eating and drinking. You can't eat or drink without eating or drinking something. So is influence. You can't influence without someone being influenced even at a distance. Thus being a relational concept does not imply a personal relationship.

Conversely, managers need to work closely with their teams. So it is management that requires actual relationships between people, not leadership. Thus we have an account of leadership that does not entail locking employees into a fixed followership role. Leading, like selling, and all other forms of influence can occur at a distance.

Consider leading by example. It is not just individuals who lead by example, let alone those in charge of others. Companies, cities and countries lead by example when they behave in an exemplary manner and others follow their lead. No personal relationship or close working arrangement is required in these cases. When a market leading company  like Apple shows leadership to  its competitors, this is not even a joint effort let alone a close working relationship. Indeed, when leadership by example occurs between competing companies, the leader takes great pains to discourage competitors from following too closely by disguising their intentions and taking out patents on new product ideas.

Leadership so conceived means showing the way for others and it can occur across groups. The prevailing wisdom that leadership occurs only within a group is a myth. Yes, leadership entails followers just as sales entails buyers but it is only within a group that there are close working relationships. Crucially, by seeing how leadership can work across groups and at a distance we can see that most of what executives do is really management suitably upgraded to be a nurturing, empowering, engaging and developmental function.

The bottom line is that the concept of management does not commit us to any notion of followership. Managers have associates, team members or collaborators, not followers. So, it is time to derail the whole followership bandwagon. The concept is disengaging because it suggests subservience. Further, being paternalistic and condescending, it institutionalizes the power gap between employees and those in charge. Finally, the term courageous follower must be seen as an oxymoron.

Changing the Culture

  • Change the meaning of leadership and management so all employees can show leadership.
  • Make it clear that anyone who promotes a better way is leading and only then.
  • Train executives to be facilitators instead of just acting as solution generators.
  • Train executives on how to encourage and receive feedback constructively.
  • Train employees on how to give constructive feedback confidently.
  • Train employees to identify leadership opportunities - not jobs but issues calling for leadership.
  • Raise the profile of mental work and how best to get such work done through others.
  • Upgrade management so it is seen as a facilitative, nurturing, empowering function.
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