Researching leadership for a book I recently interviewed a Scrum Master who had done their thesis on Integral Leadership. When I asked about their ideas on leadership their immediate reply was, “We don’t talk enough about followership.” They then proceeded to spend the next 40 minutes talking about leadership.
In their defense I didn’t ask about followership but the comment stuck with me because I realized that I too was guilty of staring awestruck and tunnel-blind at the position that seemed to hold all the impact, value, and power.
But how much of this puzzle of human organization actually is the result of leadership?
I began by coming up with a list of the traits that make for a good follower.
- Understanding the goals and purposes of others within group
- Understanding the goals and purposes of the group itself.
- Someone who can get out of the way when their own leadership or contributions would not be the most impactful.
- Someone who empowers others to perform their own roles more effectively for the benefit of all.
- Someone who can communicate their needs, capacities, and concerns effectively.
- An ability to align oneself to the goals/purpose of the group.
- Someone whose concept of individual success ideally includes but is at the very least compatible with the group’s success.
- A person who contributes to the purpose, goals, growth, security, health, social fabric of the group.
- An ability to collaborate with others towards goals/purposes that are not necessarily their own individual goals/purpose.
- A capacity to understand one's impact on the group.
- A person able to mine their individual talents, traits, growth, interests, and actions for the benefit of the group.
- A willingness and ability to assume leadership (or any other role) when their contributions would be the most impactful.
Reviewing this “followership” list in the context of leadership I realized that everyone of these would also be traits of a good leader.
There can be as many types of team members (roles) as there are types of personalities, skill sets, or talents. We each have the ability to carve out a role within a team that is unique to us and the team we are in. However, it is possible that leadership is just one of many possible types of roles in a team. A role that doesn’t exist outside of the context of the team.
Researching followership you’ll find very different traits than the ones listed above. There are articles from military organizations that talk about subordination and hope, and articles from business schools that mention loyalty and ego-management. It’s unclear how much these translate to effective performance within an organization but it is clear to see why there wouldn’t be countless listings for followership courses offered by all the best universities.
A Masters in Business Followership anyone?
The “followership” traits I listed above don’t match these ideas of what makes a follower valuable, so perhaps, rather than leadership or followership, a package of ideas and methods, something along the lines of “membership” would create a more complete picture of the direction we are hoping to see our teams evolve towards?
In the early 2000’s researchers studied teams in Antarctica. These were relatively small teams, desperately isolated for months at a time, with no alternatives but one another for cohesion and survival as a team. Within these teams the researchers found instrumental (goal/task oriented) leadership to be, well, instrumental. Expressive leadership as a role was important but not as critical.
Significantly, it was teams that had a “rich mix of informal role properties” that fared the best, and those teams that possessed the flexibility to replace lost roles without suffering too much role redundancy or competition which proved the most stable and durable.
All qualities reflected in the list above.
If our leaders are to be more democratic in their decision making and less authoritarian, and if their leadership is to be less transactional and more transformational, then leaders may be better positioned as members of the team, able to gain the trust of their teammates and able to understand the most about their potential by having worked closely beside them rather than by leading ahead of them and alone, while the team’s members follow obediently somewhere behind.
In Praise of Followers by Robert Kelley
November 1988 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Lessons In Followership: Good Leaders Aren’t Always Out Front
Lt. Col. Amelia Duran-Stanton, Col. Alicia “Ali” Masson
Association Of The United States Army
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Followership: The Other Side Of Leadership
by: John S. McCallum
Issues: September / October 2013
Ivey business journal
Johnson, Jeffrey & Palinkas, Lawrence & Boster, James. (2002). Informal social roles and the evolution and stability of social networks. Dynamic Network Modeling and Analysis: Workshop Summary and Papers.. 121-132.