With leadership, do we understand enough about those who follow?

There are over 57,000 books with the word ‘leadership’ in the title on Amazon; it’s a subject widely read, discussed and debated within business theory and beyond. But, more often than not, there tends to be one significant omission when it comes to course content; better understanding of followers.

We’ve tried to address this on the EMBA in Healthcare Management at Learna, because after all, what is the purpose of a leader if not to lead others? The ‘other’ in that relationship is central to their purpose.

As the scholar Kleiner noted of the leader and follower dynamic: “They are two sides of the same coin, each intimately connected with the other in a dynamic manner.” So, isn’t examining the people being led equally important?

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Identify types of followers

Every leader either still is, or has been, a follower too. Even for senior leaders, you’re likely to answer, or be held accountable to someone, and our experience with our own managers is that is often what has the biggest impact on shaping the kind of leaders we become.

Awareness and understanding of followership style, both your own and your team’s, can help create better working relationships and dynamics.

Robert Kelley, the author of The Power of Followership identified five followership types:

  1. The sheep – passive and looks to the leader for guidance and motivation
  2. The yes person – positive and always on the leader’s side, but unwilling to challenge the leader
  3. The alienated – independent minded, but often negative, sceptical and cynical
  4. The pragmatics – take a wait-and-see approach, they often sit on the fence and see where the momentum is heading
  5. Star followers – they think independently, are active and positive, but they do not accept the decision of leaders without evaluating it for themselves first. If star followers agree with leaders, they are the perfect person to have on side, but if they disagree, they are unafraid to challenge leaders in a constructive way.

Even though star followers may seem like the ideal follower type, it’s surprising how often leaders tend to surround themselves with ‘yes’ people instead, often limiting a teams’ capabilities and creativity.


Diversity of thought and approach

Organisations are made up of all different types of people with different follower styles. Gaining a better understanding of these styles can facilitate better, more constructive relationships.

As a leader, it’s important to recognise the value in someone’s follower approach, even if it’s different to your own.

We talk a lot about improving diversity in the workplace, but this must also mean diversity of mindset, approach and ideas. We should strive to create cohesive and collaborative teams made up of different types of leaders and followers.


The role of followers in challenging leadership

While leaders formally set the direction of a workplace, follower behaviour plays an important role in setting the culture, tone and expectations, shaping the culture of a workforce.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen rapid shifts to our ways of working, and there are still question marks over what the ‘new normal’ will look like when it comes to homeworking, flexibility and more.

Followers will play a big part in setting out their expectations here; and we’ve already seen them do so, with Apple staff campaigning against a return to the office and an EY poll showing that 54% of employees would consider leaving their job  if they’re not offered some flexibility.

Followers are questioning whether the demands placed on them by their leaders pre-pandemic are really as important as they were made out to be; an example of the power and influence followers can hold.

Ultimately, leadership isn’t just about being the boss. Followers can be leaders too. Whatever your position, we all have our own sphere of influence and we all cast a shadow that is being observed by colleagues, clients and friends.


Clare Holt is deputy programme lead at online learning platform Learna.