Home » PsyPerform - Leadership Coaching » Leadership and followership

Leadership and followership

Leadership and followership.

You will have read or heard that effective leadership comes from good followership. Like all theories, if there is any merit to it, it can stand up to the first round of scientific scrutiny. Does it? What can be learned?

Testing leadership and followership theory

If leadership and followership are linked in the way claimed, how would you measure it? How would you test the theory?

You could identify the people in any organisation who were the best followers and if the theory that leadership and followership were causally linked were true, you would find that group also contained the best leaders.

Another method would be to assess the extent that leaders emerged from those who had followed the most commonly trodden path. 

Yet another would be to assess the extent to which leaders were followed by others during their attempts to improve the world.

What would you actually find if you applied those testing methods to the real world, if you were to examine real-life cases from history?

Leadership and followership: real-life case histories

Was Churchill following the party line about Nazi Germany prior to WWII? Most definitely not! Were others following Churchill during those wilderness years. Most definitely not!

Was Mandela following his government’s lead before, during or after his imprisonment? Most definitely not!

Was Galileo following the teachings of the catholic church? Most certainly not.

Were the Wright Brother following the experts of the time, many of whom had ‘scientifically proven’ that manned flight was not possible? Most definitely not! Even when the Wrights had proven that they could fly, did the world beat a path to their door? No.

Was Thatcher following the UK’s collective will after she was elected? Absolutely not! Did those who were harming the country follow her lead? Only under legal force.

She was fought at every turn by virtually every group in society, even from within her own political party.

Other examples, many other examples could follow. Here is just one rich category from which we could choose hundreds if not thousands of examples of why leaders are generally not followers: entrepreneurs.

Was Richard Branson deemed a follower before he set up Virgin? Not according to most who knew him, including his teachers.

Was James Dyson following the vacuum cleaner industry? NO!

Leadership and followership theory didn’t make it past the first round of scrutiny. So on what basis is this much presented view formed that leadership and followership are inextricably linked? Are there any situations where that can be true?

Is a leader only a leader when followers emerge?

If Yes, then leadership is defined by followership – no followers, no leader.

If No, if a leadership exists whether or not followers emerge, then leadership is independent of followership.

Perhaps leadership and followership are linked by mediating variables.

Perhaps leadership that is viewed as most successful, is seen as such when large numbers of followers emerge, and leadership is then attributed.

If that were accurate then countless leaders whose work was only recognised and followed after their deaths, were not leaders in their lifetimes but became so after their deaths.

Did the posthumous leaders change? Not possible; they were dead. That indicates that leadership attributions are not directly connected to the actions of the leader, and are subjectively attributed. If so, the acts of leadership, the characteristics of leadership, are based in the leader but attributions of exactly the same behaviours are subjectively awarded or with-held by the follower/s.

Taking that observation to its logical conclusion, leadership is one of two extremes:

1. The behaviours exhibited by a person.

2. That characteristic subjectively perceived by others.

Leadership and followership: a continuum?

Perhaps then, we are looking at a continuum of leadership.

To be placed at one end the necessary behaviours must be present in a leader.

To be ranked in the middle of the continuum, followers must emerge.

To be positioned at the other end a worthwhile change must have been achieved.

That then opens the discussion: is leadership only described as such if a change is achieved? Can one not lead well to keep things as they are? Does resisting the forces of entropy (the natural tendency of anything to degenerate into disorder) not also constitute leadership? In other words, does managing the status quo to keep the status quo not also require leadership?

Perhaps so.

Leadership and followership: a semantic problem?

Perhaps we are now less in the field of leadership and more in the area of semantics.

If our definition of leadership is “being the inspirational mind behind positive change,” then maintaining the status quo is not leadership (it may be management).

If our definition is “being the inspirational mind behind creating or maintaining a positive change,” then clearly there is no distinction between management and leadership.

Enough semantics, back to the practicalities of leadership and followership:

Can leadership emerge from followership?

Where people have been charged with keeping something going, with maintaining the status quo, we find leader-followers. Because, typically, to have remained in such an organisation long enough to reach a top position, such people have been long-term followers for much of their careers.

How often have you seen someone lead some world-changing improvement after decades of following? It has happened, but is so rare as to be the exception that proves the rule that leaders are very, very rarely, followers.

It need not be rare. It could be common. People who have been followers for most of their careers can become great leaders. How?

By adopting and practicing the mind-set of leaders who have not been long-term followers.

But that takes us away from the key point:

followers turned leaders are rare, and for good reasons…

Leadership and followership: a rare combination.

Throughout history, people who lead life-improving, world-changing events have almost always been resisted, persecuted, subjected to false-allegations, and in the not so distant past, tortured, maimed, and or killed. Indeed, that still goes on today.

The Perfect Change Book CoverFor what reason are the people who stand to benefit from leadership usually the same one who try to undermine it? Leadership, as commonly defined, involves change, and change creates uncertainty, and all but the best leaders react badly to and are fearful of uncertainty. People, mostly, attack anything that causes them fear.

That may be another reason that so few leaders emerge from being long-term followers: people become like those with whom they long-term associate. When people have been long-term followers in an organisation, they learn how to play the politically safe game. They have seen many times what happens to those who tried to improve the organisation in ways not approved of by those temporarily in charge. They learn, that when it comes to suggesting new ideas for improvement that the long-term security of their pay-cheque is much more appealing than any improvement.

That approach, too, may be another reason that so few genuine leaders emerge from having been followers. The habit of playing it safe, of eschewing risk, becomes so ingrained that leadership is barely possible; it disappears from the thought patterns.

It can be possible. People who have been followers can change their long-term mental behaviours to become effective leaders. It is not easy or fast, but it is possible. People who have been “lifers,” (in organisations all their working lives) can become successful entrepreneurs, and leaders in all sorts of ways. Back to the key point:

Can leadership be understood from followership?

Perhaps, to a small degree. Perhaps by studying the reasons that followers accepted a person as their leader. In most other instances leadership absolutely cannot be defined or even understood by followership. Here are a few of the many scientific reasons.

1. In the profound cases of leadership we have looked at, the leaders had so few followers in the early stages of their improvement stance (not enough for a statistically significant sample).

2. The Wright Brothers were thought to be cranks. They had followers, a small number. They were still leaders before any followers emerged. The leadership came first.

Churchill was leading when everyone thought he was a war-mongering crank. Poland proved him right. The leadership came first. (The causal link is in the direction of leadership causes follower.)

3. When leaders achieve success it normally comes quite some time AFTER the behaviours and actions that usually define leadership have been carried out. Great leaders are such, usually, long before they have followers. (The time span between the actions, behaviour and character of the leaders and the response of the followers is so long that intervening variables confound the analysis.)

The Perfect Vision Book CoverIf you are to understand and develop leadership skills you need to know what it takes to be a leader when nobody is listening, or worse still, when everyone is opposed to your view, when not only are there no followers, but there are active resisters: many.

More, much more can be learned from understanding what it take to lead in the face of hostility, when even friends are keeping their distance, than can be learned from when followers emerge in the bright sunlight to claim their eternal support for you. At an applied level that knowledge now exists, and any one who wishes can learn it.

Leadership and followership: when bad-weather resisters turn sunshine followers

There maybe another point of learning from followership, that is, exploring what shift took place in the mind of bad-weather resisters turned sunshine followers. In that instant, the leader did not change, s/he did not suddenly acquire new behavioural patterns. The change was in the follower, and perhaps that change was as simple as: they understood that the benefit of following the leader was greater than the risk of ignoring her/him; a psychological tipping point occurred. But why does it take so long, if it happens at all?

The Perfect Communicator Book CoverDo leaders convey their benefit message too late in the interactions? Is it the leader’s fault that they didn’t sell their message well enough? No, they almost always immediately and repeatedly spell out, in very clear terms, what the benefit is, and how it is greater than the risks. The leaders do not change, the followers do.

Consequently while ‘followership’ may provide some small insight into leadership, it is a relatively poor vein of study compared to the rich seam represented by the future leader’s behaviours and actions and reasoning. For example: what enables leaders to see what is possible and be prepared to take huge consequences in standing up for it? How can great leaders muster so much greater courage than typical followers? What makes a leader carry on in the face of stiff resistance? How do great leaders craft a vision that others find inspiring? What factors predict that leadership changes will work, and which predict failure? How do great leaders communicate in order to make their desired changes more likely to be successful?

Fortunately, at an applied level, we know the answers to those questions.

If you want to explore how to lead more effectively contact PsyPerform.

Prof Nigel MacLennan

Copyright PsyPerform 2016

The books pictured above are only available to PsyPerform leadership coaching clients.

Comments are closed.