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Research into followership: A practitioner's response

Can we improve the effectiveness of the leader-follower relationship?


In my work as a learning and development consultant, many of the people I come across in workshops and development programmes think of themselves as leaders or potential leaders. Yet when they are in situations where they are not leading, such as group projects or exercises, they find it difficult to contribute effectively.

As we move into a future in which collaboration is increasingly important, we need to look for ways of developing the attitudes and competencies that allow us to perform as both leaders and followers with equal effectiveness.

What’s new

In the scenario described in the box below, each person in the group thinks of him- or herself as a leader, is seen by others as a leader, and identifies with specific leadership styles and behaviours. But when the authority to lead, whether formal or informal, is taken away from them and they are forced into a follower role, the behaviour they show is ineffective when it comes to achieving the objective of the exercise.

This is not unusual – I have observed the same ‘can’t lead won’t follow’ phenomenon in individuals participating in different situations – workshops, group projects, pair work exercises etc. I therefore decided to investigate whether, and if so how, we can develop followership with a view to increasing the effectiveness of individuals in situations where they are not able to lead.

Key findings

No-one wants to be a follower. In 2008 Robert Kelley, one of the most influential figures in followership research, wrote: “If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me ‘you need to come up with a word other than follower because it’s socially unacceptable’, I would be much wealthier today.”

Other researchers, as well as popular literature, concur that the word ‘follower’ is fundamentally and pretty much universally unpopular with those doing the following.

My own research also agreed with this negative view. Without exception, everyone I asked said that leaders are more valued than followers, and that they would rather be described as a leader than a follower. In general, the attitude towards followers was that they execute and don’t think, reason or question.

Conceptually, I think most people would agree that ‘boss’ and ‘leader’ are different, but the word ‘leader’ has made its way into the vocabulary of authority within organisations, resulting in confusion over the difference between position and behaviour.

As one retired British manager who used to work in a Swiss-based multinational organisation, who I interviewed for my research, put it: “You need to have a clear vocabulary separating out leadership and people [just] being managed.”

When we use the word leader to describe the CEO we link it with all the trappings of power, status and material rewards that go with that position. So it’s perhaps not surprising that people don’t want to be identified as ‘followers’ – they can too easily see themselves or be seen as someone who will never get to the top or have access to the rewards that a leader has.

So the answer to the first part of my question – whether we can develop followership – is no, if we continue to use the word ‘followership’. Until we change the paradigm of leadership within which we currently function, it is hard to even talk about followership because the very term and concept as it exists within the current paradigm is unacceptable to the majority of people.

A new paradigm

Imagine a world in which the words ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ are as neutral as ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’. What if ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ were approached and valued in the same way as ‘speak’ and ‘listen’ – different skills, equally important, and mutually dependent on each other?

In his article ‘A New Leadership-Followership Paradigm’, Ernest Stech proposes a leadership-followership state model. The principal concept is that leadership and followership are states or conditions that anyone can embody at any time, i.e. that leading and following are things that you do or show, but from moment to moment and not necessarily all the time.

As Stech writes: “This gets away from the notion that a person either is or is not a leader. It also frees the subordinate or follower from being pinned in an inferior place for all time.”

I believe Stech’s ‘leadership-followership state’ paradigm is starting to take hold – look at the growing trend for bossless organisations such as W. L. Gore and Morning Star, and the increased application of the agile approach in large mainstream organisations.

But do we need to wait until the leader-follower paradigm shift is complete before we encourage people to perform to maximum effect in every situation, regardless of the role they see themselves in?

From research to reality

In equine-assisted learning workshops it is easier to set aside the emotional baggage of ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ – the horse doesn’t care about titles or assigned roles, but adapts its behaviour to the situation. So outside the constraints of leader and follower what behaviours do we see?

In scenario two (see below) both horse and person set direction, give guidance, provide feedback, respond to feedback, challenge actions and respond to challenges. Impetus for change can come from either one, with the other moving seamlessly from taking the initiative (‘leading’) to responding to the initiative taken by the other (‘following’). The final outcome is successful – objective achieved with no emotional conflict.

If the behaviours are clear what about the underlying attitudes and values? One key aspect of working with horses is mutual trust – if you don’t trust the horse or vice versa it will be very difficult to achieve anything together. Building trust within groups is just as important, so identifying and promoting the attitudes and values that allow people to trust one another (for example respect, integrity, honesty) is just as important as developing the behaviours described above.

Practical steps

How can we promote and develop the behaviours and attitudes that contribute towards effective group work? Below are some suggestions:

  • Move away from ‘leadership’ and emphasise ‘partnership’ instead. Use experiential learning activities like equine-assisted learning workshops to provide opportunities for people to observe, identify and practise the leading and following behaviours described above in a neutral context, away from the politically charged environment of the office where positions and roles are rigid and constraining. This type of experiential activity, pushing people out of their comfort zone with the support of their colleagues, also promotes the environment of trust that is essential for truly effective collaboration.
  • Emphasise and develop the behaviours of leading and following outside the limited arena of leadership development. Incorporate them into other development programmes and workshops, and into on-the-job training. Build them into the systems and processes of the organisation.
  • Mix hierarchical levels in workshops and development programmes. With equine-assisted learning doing exercises with the horses is a great opportunity to work outside the constraints of hierarchical authority.
  • Build emotional intelligence across the organisation. Emotional intelligence covers personal competencies (self-awareness, self-management) and social competencies (social awareness, relationship management), both essential for effective leading and following. For example, the ability to challenge and question actions or ideas that are not benefiting an objective. Helping people to develop the personal competencies of accurate self-assessment (knowing one’s strengths and limits), self-confidence (a sound sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities), transparency (displaying honesty and integrity), and initiative (readiness to act and seize opportunities), could certainly have a positive impact on a person’s ability to challenge when needed.

This essay was runner-up of the 2017 Roffey Park and HR magazine academic research competition. To read the full award-winning research paper, visit www.equineleader.ch/kraskertrainingconsultancy/wha...

Sarah Krasker has been working as an independent learning and development consultant since 2005