Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders
Harvard Business School Press (2008)
In recent years, especially in the business world, relationships between “leaders” and “followers” have changed significantly. Throughout most of human history, leaders at the highest level (e.g. tribal chiefs, war lords, monarchs, and tyrants) were almost always those who seized or inherited positions of authority. Business leaders were owners. Over time, the concept of self-determination evolved to a point when political authority began to shift to elected representatives. Stock companies with shared ownership emerged in the business world. Still later, labor unions were formed to secure and protect workers’ rights. Throughout this lengthy process, the respective roles of the leader and follower reflected various social, political, and economic changes. Today, it is often difficult to answer a rather simple question, “Who leads whom?”
According to Barbara Kellerman, “followership is the response of those in subordinate positions (followers) to those in superior ones (leaders). Followership implies a relationship (rank), between subordinates and superiors, and a response (behavior), of the former to the latter.” Her book departs from the leader-centric approach that dominates much of the current consideration of leadership and management. “Focusing on followers enables us to see the parts they play, even when they do little or nothing. And it empowers them, which is to say that it empowers us.” Kellerman duly acknowledges that the line that separates superiors from their subordinates is often “blurred.” Also, “the line between them tends to shift. Some of us are followers most of the time and leaders some f the time. Others are the opposite.” Finally, that many people are superiors and subordinates simultaneously. Moreso now than at any prior time that I recall, our roles are determined within a context and, as Kellerman correctly suggests, “followers are creating change and changing leaders.”
These are among the questions to which she responds:
• What are some of the most common misconceptions about followership?
• How and why are leaders and followers “inextricably enmeshed”?
• Why do people follow their leaders, even those whom Jean Lipman-Blumen has characterized as “toxic”?
• What are the different types of followers and how are they “all in some way engaged”?
• “Standing up and speaking out is not, of itself, good enough.” Why not?
Note: James O’Toole also has much of value to say about this in an essay (“Speaking Truth to Power”) included in, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, co-authored with Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman.
Of special interest to me is the material Kellerman provides in Chapters 5-8 when citing real-world examples of followers who were “Bystanders” during the Holocaust, “Participants” who were involved in the “saga of Vioxx” at Merck, “Activists” who acted upon allegations of clergy sex with minors in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and “Diehards” who “wanted to catch, to kill, the enemy responsible for the attacks on American soil [on September 11, 2001] but questioned the judgment of those who formulated subsequent responses to them, such as Operation Enduring Freedom that included involvement in Afghanistan (Operation Anaconda), beginning in March of 2002.
As for Participants, they “clearly favor their leaders and the groups and organizations of which they are members – or they are clearly opposed. [They invest] some of what they have (time, for example) to try to have an impact.” With regard to Activists, they “feel strongly about their leaders and act accordingly. They are eager, energetic, and engaged…[and] work hard either on behalf of their leaders or to undermine and even unseat them,” such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. As for Diehards, they are defined by their dedication, including their willingness to risk life and limb. Being a Diehard is all-consuming. It is who you are. It determines what you do.” Those who have Diehards among their followers “have a special responsibility in those situations in which lives are at stake.” Kellerman cites Colin Powell and George Tenet as two examples of leaders who remained silent rather than opposing the American invasion of Iraq, “putting their loyalty to the president ahead of their loyalty to the people. Consider it a lesson in how not to follow.” Whether or not you agree with Kellerman’s assessment, at least in this situation, Powell and Tenet were both leaders and followers.
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Click here to check out a video of Kellerman discussing her concept of followership.
Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. Her next book, Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence, will be published by McGraw-Hill in August.
Cheryl offers: My favorite flowers are blooming now; they are Texas bluebonnets. I’ve always favored them above all other wild flowers. One reason is blue is a fairly uncommon color in flowers, they grow wherever they are planted which is frequently in poor soil, and they endure without a lot of care. When I saw them this past week, I thought of Tom Morris’ book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors. Now if the title didn’t ring a little ironic, Tom’s background might. He was a professor of philosophy for 15 years at Notre Dame who came to believe we cannot solve today’s problems without the wisdom of the ancients. Tom’s book was written in 1997, long before GM’s current problems were apparent. The book contains some great advice for corporations based on 4 key values of human excellence: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Unity. They are directly co-related to the 4 key dimensions of human experience: intellectual, aesthetic, moral and spiritual. My favorite quote from the book is “The beautiful is as useful as the useful. More so, perhaps.” from Victor Hugo. Morris does a great job in the book admonishing leaders to make sure they think about the aesthetics of work and business because they are important to people. Where do you feel most relaxed, creative, refreshed and alive? Looking at a beautiful sunrise, sunset, lake or checking out the carpet in your cubicle? Beauty is important to all of us. If only more leaders had appreciated and read this book, maybe GM wouldn’t be in the pickle they are in. For me, bluebonnets are an annual reminder to appreciate the beauty of excellent work, innovative ideas, and the look when someone says “Ah-ha!”
Cheryl offers: Sometimes I can’t believe what I read when I pick up the newspaper. It’s generally the reason I don’t look at it very often. When I do, it’s usually to check out the weather on the back page of the Metro section. However, what was on the front page today got my attention. It seems the two top elected officials in Flower Mound, that would be two people in highly visible leadership roles, have been accused of sexual harassment. The chief of police filed the complaint after witnessing the incident in which a police officer was evidently pinched on the behind by the…drum roll, please…two women. Yes, indeed. The male police officer confirmed he was pinched as they stood on either side of him and there’s a video to confirm it. Leaders have a responsibility, both legally and morally, to abide by the law and that seems to be especially true of elected officials. To me, it’s even more important for women to take the obligations and responsibilities of being a leader seriously. We have worked hard to progress to the current state and incidents like this hurt us all. They dent our credibility, insult our intelligence and hard work, and minimize our hard won accomplishments. Bette Price tells us “True leaders are keenly aware of the power of their position, yet are quick to point out that without genuinely valuing their people, their position of power is limited” in her book, True Leaders. Who better to have proven this to be true than these two leaders who forgot the power of their position, dismissed the trust of the people they represent, and placed themselves in compromised power positions? One has decided not to run for re-election and that might just be the best decision she’s made lately.
In this series, Bob Morris poses a key question and then responds to it with material from one or more of the business books he has reviewed for Amazon and Borders.
Although there have been references to leaders in literature dating back at least to Moses in the Old Testament, references to managers in a Druckerian sense (i.e. as professionals) are relatively recent. There seems to be general agreement among authorities on the subject that leaders have a vision of what must be done and attract the support of others who share that vision. They focus on intangibles such as trust, hope, faith, and enthusiasm. They know and do “what is right.” The greatest leaders possess what Daniel Goleman describes as “emotional intelligence.” They see the Big Picture and tend to rely on others to concentrate on details.
They rely on those who “manage” the tangibles such as material resources (especially funds) as well as time. Managers focus on the work to be done. They know what is right and “do it right.” Whereas leaders inspire others, managers supervise and coordinate the efforts of others. They are preoccupied with efficiency and productivity and agree with Mies van der Rohe that “God is in the details.” For that reason, their analytical skills tend to be more highly developed than are their “people skills.” It would be inaccurate to suggest that managers do not see the “forest” but they are much more interested in counting and classifying all the “trees,” pruning some and eliminating others, raking up the “leaves,” etc.
Mixing metaphors, troops follow a leader into battle; managers make certain that they are well-prepared and in proper formation. As with Robin Hood, sometimes the “battle” is waged in a forest.
Comments, questions, requests, or suggestions? Please share them. They will be most welcome and I thank you for them. Best regards, Bob