Followership, what is it and why do people follow?

Leadership has been written about and studied for centuries, more often than not addressing how those in leadership roles influence their followers. The focus is usually very leader-centric, where followers are considered as passive recipients of the leader’s influence. Yet effective leadership cannot exist without some form of followership.

This new book Followership, what is it and why do people follow? challenges the idea of the submissive follower, re-casting the role in a more favourable and productive light and presenting new insights into the importance of understanding followership in the workplace.

Highlights include

– New insights on the increasingly popular topic of followership.

– Psychological explanations for why people follow,

– Factors predicting the capacity to switch between follower and leader roles

– Answering why organizations are more reliant on followers now than in the past, and the sorts of environments where specific followership styles are most likely to be nurtured and of greatest value to leadership.

We were fortunate to catch an interview with the book’s co-editor and contributor, Laurent Lapierre, with the hope of delving deeper into the book and the concept of followership.

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Hi Laurent, can you elaborate on the importance of followership to a business?

There is a lot of research and articles written about the notion of leadership, focusing on what they should and shouldn’t do, a leader’s personal characteristics, the behaviours of an effective leader, how they influence and inspire others, and how their vision of the future may advance positive change in organisations. Yet there is practically no attention paid to followers, and ultimately the focus is too one-sided because one can’t have true leadership without followers.

It seemed a good starting point of our research to look at clarifying what is followership and why people follow. Understanding this symbiotic relationship – between leader and follower – is helpful for any business looking for improved effectiveness because, as we understand it, leaders and followers work together in a process of mutual influence to advance common objectives in an organisation. Attention should not be limited to leaders.

Following isn’t just accepting subordination and meekly getting on with things. Rather effective followership can be a choice made by those outside of leadership positions to better their circumstances and give meaning to their role.

At the heart of followership is a conscious reciprocity between leaders and followers intended to sustain both parties’ best interests. Do you agree?

Leaders need their followers and followers need their leaders. Effective followers display behaviour that recognises their leader, offering resources of support etc. However followers tend to be more empowered than commonly thought. Recent research identifies two prominent followership styles followers: proactive and passive followership.

Passive followership involves strict obedience and high deference to the leader. Passive followers refrain from questioning their leader’s ideas or decisions (even when they disagree with them) and focus on carrying out leadership decisions to the best of their ability.

Proactive followership involves significantly less deference to the leader and less concern with strictly obeying the leader’s decisions. Such followers aim to partner with the leader in leading the group by displaying independent thinking and contributing to decisions that affect the group’s success. This is more a ‘partnership’ type of relationship between leader and follower.

For any follower, it is important to know when it makes most sense to follow proactively and when it may be wiser to display passive followership. Poorly choosing one’s followership style could significantly harm the relationship with one’s leader, implying less trust and support, and fewer opportunities for professional development.

Do followers display common characteristics?

I believe that effective followers, just like effective leaders, are skilled at putting themselves in the other person’s (the leader’s) shoes to best understand what his or her pressures, preferences, or ambitions are. It’s this knowledge that helps an emotionally mature follower adjust his or he style to the particular leader. Leaders sometimes need passive followership (e.g., in a highly time-sensitive situation where the leader knows what decision should be made), while needing proactive followership at other times (e.g., when the leader is facing a complex problem and needs followers to provide constructive input).

Do followers need good leaders to be effective, or can you follow a bad leader?

There is no such thing as a bad leader. To be a good leader implies you have a following, which suggests you inspire confidence and belief in others. Rather than a bad leader I would replace this with the expression ‘manager who cannot lead’.

But yes, an effective follower can help a leader improve or make the transition to leader. For instance, say a new manager is parachuted into a new role and had no former knowledge of his new colleagues, in this situation a follower’s support for their manger – providing followership – is likely to boost the manager’s confidence and sense of empowerment ,which will help them become a good leader.

I think research on followership has important implications for businesses because it provide them with more of an insight into the characteristics of followership, the different followership roles people will occupy and the characteristics that make a good follower. There is a huge amount of money invested in training and developing leaders, yet leaders only account for a small fraction of the overall workforce. Our research opens the door to thinking about how we can redistribute the development opportunities to followers for the benefit of the business. Not everyone can be leaders, but that doesn’t mean only a few should receive nurturing and development. Not being a leader, or wanting to attain the level of leader, should not discredit you from personal development, which if done correctly, with enhance the organisation’s effectiveness and greater employee collaboration.

For more information on the book, including how to purchase a copy, please click on the following link: Followership, what is it and why do people follow?