Followership and why Alice went after the white rabbit.
Updated: May 6
Followers are those who follow, right? And if they don't, they're not really followers, are they? But then, who are those who don't follow? And for those who do, why do they follow? What makes them follow? If they follow, does it mean they always "agree" and "do" what they're told? Or are they more like Alice, just curious? I can't help but wonder if these questions have crossed your mind too.
Isn't it at least "slightly" intriguing that there are so many research articles and publications on leaders and leadership, yet only a few on followers and followership? Especially when the majority of us follow and don't lead. What are the reasons behind this "lack of interest"? Is it because we see being a follower as "unimpressive"? Do we fixate on leadership in the hope that one day we can forget followership altogether, finally calling ourselves the owner of power, status, and prestige - the "leader"? Or maybe, that's not it.
Perhaps our "follower ignorance," or let's call it "followership resistance," is influenced by the characteristics of the new era we live in, the era of "radical individualism," where most of us simply don't want to follow anything but ourselves. But then, how do we learn? Who, outside of ourselves, are our teachers, our guides, our "looking up to figures," our masters? I ask, "Who?"
In this blog post, I will explore these questions and delve into the intriguing world of followership. I will examine the reasons behind the lack of focus on followership, challenge the preconceived notion that being a follower is inherently unimpressive, and highlight the importance of followers in a leadership context. I plan to unravel the mysteries of followership and encourage a more balanced understanding of the roles of leaders and followers in an organisational context. And who knows, you might even start to see followers in a whole new light - or should I say, as the unsung heroes of the leadership narrative.
Mendoza P., 1966, Alice Follows White Rabbit: Alice in Wonderland 05. Watercolour on Board. The Illustration Art Gallery, London. Copyright: © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.
Chapter I: A Gentle Introduction to Followership - What We Think We Know & What We Imagine Might Be True
Welcome to what I like to call the "Ground Zero Guide" - a holistic yet basic introduction to the fascinating world of followership. In this chapter, I'll introduce you to some key concepts, theories, and frameworks, drawing from evidence-based knowledge while leaving room for exceptions, assumptions, and even a touch of hearsay. I'll also sprinkle in some humour, art, and music for good measure.
The purpose of this "Ground Zero Guide" is to present an expanded view of followership in organisations, demonstrating that there's so much more to learn. Western cultures tend to focus on leaders and their power, importance, and status, while followership often gets overlooked. This preconceived notion implies that followers are somehow lesser or even unimpressive. But is that really the case?
Let's begin by acknowledging the elephant in the room: our culture's fixation on leadership. Just look at popular interview questions and job descriptions; it seems everyone wants leaders, and we all want to be leaders.
"Leadership Interview Questions". Job Interview Guide available from www.best-job-interview.com
But what about followers? As Northouse (2021, p. 352) aptly noted:
Clearly, it is leadership skills that are applauded by society, not followership skills. It is just simply more intriguing to talk about how leaders use power than to talk about how followers respond to power.
Meindl (1995) dubbed this phenomenon the "romance of leadership". But let's challenge this notion and dive into the world of followership, exploring who followers are, their influence, and their effects on leadership.
In this quirky "Ground Zero Guide to Followership", I'll introduce you to the following key concepts, theories, and frameworks:
Implicit Followership Theories (IFTs) - focusing on behaviours (relational, role-based approaches) and traits (follower typologies)
Constructionism (relational, process view)
Leader-Member Exchange (LMX theory)
Social Identity Theory of Leadership
I'll also touch on some thought-provoking ideas, such as:
Leadership only occurs in groups and because of groups.
Leadership exists outside formal roles; everyone can engage in it.
"Others" (leaders + followers) are necessary for leadership to occur
Leadership is a co-creation process, with members dynamically swapping between leading and following.
Followership reverses the lens in leadership research, shedding light on a new perspective.
We could all benefit from increasing our ability to more fluently shift between leading and following.
Both leaders and followers can learn from each other; both can be "strong" in their roles.
So, buckle up as we embark on this exciting journey to explore the lesser-known side of leadership - followership! Let's challenge our preconceptions and discover the power that lies within each of us, regardless of our formal titles or authority.
Views on followership as found in the peer-reviewed academic publications.
Chapter II: Theoretical Approaches - Consolidation, Categorisation & Adding a Dash of Spice
Embarking on a chapter dedicated to the theoretical foundations of followership might seem daunting and potentially dry. However, worry not! I'm here to guide you through the process while keeping things engaging and enjoyable.
Although there may be fewer followership theories compared to leadership theories, there is still plenty to explore. In the text below, I propose a categorisation and grouping of current followership theories to provide an overview of the existing knowledge in this area:
Evolutionary Perspectives: These theories seek to explain the reasons for following. They propose that leadership and followership are adaptive strategies early humans developed for effective coordination in activities such as hunting, gathering, and peacekeeping. The evolutionary perspective suggests that leadership may be an evolutionary solution to increase a group's likelihood of survival (e.g., Bastardoz & Van Vugt, 2019; Van Vugt et al., 2008; Van Vugt & Ronay, 2014).
Implicit Followership Theories (IFTs): IFTs study traits (dispositions or personalities) and behaviours that characterise followers. Examples include research on followers' schemas (Sy, 2010) and behaviours that define followers (e.g. Hurwitz & Hurwitz, 2009).
2a. IFTs (Behaviors - Relations - Role-Based Approaches): In this view, followership is seen through the lens of static roles, often in the context of hierarchical organisations. The primary purpose of these approaches is to understand how followers work with leaders in ways that contribute to or detract from leadership and organisational outcomes. Examples include Carsten et al. (2013), who draw from role-orientation theory (Parker, 2000).
2b. IFTs (Traits - Follower Typologies): These approaches include various types of follower typologies, helping us understand the range of roles taken by followers. Examples include active and engaged, independent and assertive, submissive and compliant, or supportive and conforming followers (e.g., Carsten et al., 2014; Zaleznik, 1965; Kelly, 1992; Chaleff, 1995; Kellerman, 2008).
3. Constructionism - Relational (Process View): Social constructivism argues that people create meaning about their reality through interactions with each other. The main claim of these approaches to followership is that leadership is co-created through the combined acts of leading and following (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014). Examples include DeRue & Ashford (2010) and Fairhurst & Uhl-Bien (2012).
4. Leader-Member Exchange (LMX): LMX theory posits that leaders and followers (referred to as "subordinates") develop an exchange relationship based on personal compatibility and subordinate competence and dependability. Examples include Graen et al. (1995), Liden et al. (1997), and Wayne et al. (1997).
5. Adaptive Leadership Theory: This theory describes leading and following as a complex adaptive process based on recurring patterns of leading-following interactions that result in emergent leader-follower identities (DeRue, 2011).
As we delve deeper into these theoretical approaches, I'll be your trusty guide, adding a pinch of wit and a dollop of enthusiasm to keep things lively.
Chapter III: New Perspectives on Followership and Why Ideas Matter.
Suli Breaks is one of the UK's leading spoken word poets. "Follow the Leader" was a piece created especially for TEDxHousesofParliament 2014 to close the show. In the introduction to his performance, Suli says:
"I realise that I actually don't know that much about leadership as a whole. Everything I am going to say is 'my opinion,' and what I think leadership should be. It will be relevant to some of you, may not be relevant to some of you, but please do not come up to me afterwards giving me political statements, and manifestos, and tell me what is right and what is wrong. I am just stating my opinion. This is what I do as an artist."
Although I've studied leadership for some time now, similar to Suli Breaks, I realise that I don't know that much about it either. Luckily, I have ideas. In this final chapter, I share a few, inspired by a wide range of reading, reflection, as well as inspiration from art, music, and various dialogue and team coaching sessions. Whenever possible, I build and link to existing theories in an attempt to ground my claims in evidence-based knowledge.
The Big & Smelly Idea #1: "Leaders Never Only Lead and Followers Never Only Follow."
Being dismissive of who followers are and what they do doesn't seem wise. Moreover, believing that the roles of leader and followers are "stiff" and limited to "titles" and "categorisations" would be a mistake (Yukl, 2012). This is because leadership is as much about "leaders" as it is about "followers" – both are needed as both co-create the leadership process (Fairhurst & Uhl-Bien, 2012). You can think of their relationship as a "dance", a dynamic interaction, akin to a football game, with "the ball of leadership" often in the air, passed between various team members, with them leading and following depending on where "the ball" currently is. From this perspective, when nobody touches the ball, nobody runs and follows it, there is no game, no progress, no happening, and yes, no leadership.
This is because humans are dynamic and "shift" in their actions and reactions continuously. Hence, in any team, the role of a "leader and follower" dynamically and continuously shifts and moves, depending on a particular context, such as task characteristics, urgency, team capacity, and individual members' strengths and weaknesses (Uhl-Bien & Carsten, 2016).
This position, where leaders and followers remain in constantly dynamic movement and shift who is the recipient of the leadership influence, is rooted in "relational leadership theories" (Uhl-Bien, 2006; Uhl-Bien et al., 2014) and Adaptive Leadership Theory (DeRue, 2011). DeRue, in particular, describes leadership as a process of claiming and granting behaviours.
Perhaps the best example of "the leader-follower co-dependency" (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014), where one wouldn't exist without the other, is captured in the well-known video "Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy", eloquently narrated by Sivers in his TED talk from 2014.
Consider what would happen if the "first follower" didn't join in. Nothing would occur. The "nutter" would remain a "nutter"; a bizarre, eccentric, and utterly peculiar "dancing man" – definitely not a "leader". However, everything changes when others join in. The nutter transforms into more of a leader and teacher. Intriguingly, note that those who join him become "nutters" as well, only this time, being a "nutter" is approved and even considered "cool". The actions and behaviours of the "dancing guy" teach others how to "dance like a nutter". In "Leadership: Theory and Practice", Peter Northouse (p. 2063) writes:
A serendipitous outcome of being a follower is that in the process of following, you learn about leading. Followership grants individuals the opportunity to view leadership from a position unencumbered by the burdens and responsibilities of being the leader. Followers observe what does or does not work for a leader; they can learn which leadership approaches or methods are effective or ineffective and apply this learning if they become leaders.
Now, translate this learning into organisations and group settings when an individual member attempts to make a point or advance an idea, perhaps proposing something that makes them appear as if they are a "nutter" like the "dancing guy". When such individual members do not receive support from other group members, they tend to feel disconfirmed and question their role and contribution. If no one in the group shows their support, the idea remains just that – an idea. However, when the member's idea is heard and gains traction, supported by others "joining in", that's when things shift (see DeRue, 2011). For a leader, having a follower who supports them is akin to having a lieutenant. The lieutenant affirms the leader's ideas to others, thereby giving the leader's ideas validity, strengthening the leader's position, advancing the leader's goals (Yelsma, 1999), and supporting a shift where the idea of the one becomes a new reality for the crowd.
The Big, Smelly Idea #2: "There is No Leadership without Followership."
Relational approaches to leadership and the brilliant example of the "Dancing Guy" clearly demonstrate that both leaders and followers are essential participants for the leadership game to occur. Some researchers even assert that "it is in following that leadership is created", implying that if there is no following, there is no leadership (Uhl-Bien & Ospina, 2012; Uhl-Bien et al., 2014). These perspectives also assume the reverse, i.e., there is no leadership when others grant you a leadership role, and you decline it. For instance, imagine you are the most qualified person to tackle a challenge, and due to your competence, others decide to grant you leadership. However, if you decline it (for whatever reason), in this case, too, leadership did not materialise.
This notion that leadership needs followership and followership needs leadership is aptly captured in a story by McMillen (1963) about a girl who wanted to go to college and realised she did not aspire to or perceive herself as a leader. Faced with the college application form and the question, "Are you a leader?" and being both honest and conscientious, she wrote the truth: "No". She returned the application, expecting the worst, but to her surprise, she received this letter from the college:
"Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that we have at least one follower."
The simple conclusion to draw is that followership is crucial in leadership. For another example, let's consider religious figures, e.g. Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, the world's largest religion. If no one were to listen and follow him, would we be able to claim he led? To put it plainly: whom would we claim he led? I mean, what kind of leadership is it when nobody follows? If you're unsure about how we might relate these ideas to the football game and the "leadership ball", consider reflecting on two different images juxtaposed next to each other:
on one hand, a depiction of a preaching Jesus and, on the other, Diego Maradona in Argentina’s match against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup, watched live by over 60,000 people. Both of these visual representations offer a glimpse of leadership focused on leaders, and yet, the power these two figures possess is only because of the power granted to them by their followers.
The need to "rebalance" the importance of both leaders and followers was notably highlighted in a New York Times 2017 article titled "Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers" (see also mentioned above a story by McMillen (1963) about a girl who wanted to go to college). The author, Susan Cain, critiques the glorification of leadership skills in college admissions, arguing that what the world needs are more followers.
However, would it be more accurate to say there are actually enough of them (i.e., us) already? Isn't it that what we really need is an increased ability to shift more eloquently between these two roles, i.e. between a leader and follower?
This heightened ability to shift would mean not only are we more capable of playing both roles effectively, regardless of the role we are in at any given time, but simply that we have mastered "smoothly" taking over and, at the same time, "smoothly" allowing others to "take us over".
If such reflections resonate, then another "nutter" idea is this: It's not that we need both Leaders & Followers. We just need people. We need people who are willing to dance together and who are fully committed to making that dance beautiful.
Another perspective might be poignantly described by Marianne Williamson in her 1976 book, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles'", where she speaks of people able to face their deepest fear, knowing that...
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
"Jesus in boat preaching" , made available by John Elberfeld.
Diego Maradona in Argentina’s match against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup. Photograph: Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images
The Big, Smelly Idea #3: "Followers Do Not Decide."
Well, actually, they do. They hold the most important decision there is, i.e., whether to follow or not. Moreover, this choice is no longer made "unconsciously". The times of Peter Pan and the "Following the Leader" scene from the 1953 production seem ridiculous now (well, unless you consider what is happening in Ukraine and perhaps harshly, judge those who decided to stay and fight as ordered by Mr Putin the Greatest).
If people decide to follow, it signifies "approval", underpinned by strong commitment and positive associations, similar to when you click on "follow" on social media – a vote of interest, liking, and support, a sort of vote of approval (note an interesting twist in relation to followers on social media presented in a 2010 HBR blog post, "On Twitter, Followers Don't Equal Influence". The blog post centred around research confirming that the number of followers, i.e., popularity, does not necessarily mean influence).
We make our decisions on "how" and "what" to follow with more attention, not giving our "likes" as easily as we might have in the past. There is more responsibility for "what" and "who" we choose to support. We might even occasionally engage in something which I refer to as "followership inventory", like when we go through our contacts and subscriptions, tidying up our connections and removing those that should not be there.
Today, to publicly "follow" someone is to announce, openly and unapologetically, that we recognise them for the way they do things and who they are, indicating our support and "togetherness". The radical, 'socially constructed view of leadership sees it as being "in the eye of the beholder" – i.e., followers agree on what constitutes leadership and hence whom they are prepared to follow.
In his work on a conceptual framework of "authentic followership", de Zilwa (2014) focuses on the relational interactions between leaders and followers and how authentic followership impacts leadership processes. De Zilwa argues that followership is proactive—followers make a conscious decision to follow a leader. This challenges the conventional view that a leader's influence is a one-way process. When viewed from a less leader-centric perspective, leadership can be seen as something that occurs among followers as a result of how they interpret leadership. This places less emphasis on the personality of the leader and more on followers' reactions to the leader. It shifts attention away from leaders as the causal agents of organisational change and focuses on how the behaviour of followers affects organisational outcomes (Carsten et al. 2014). But the choice and decision are not only something that belongs to followers. The leader has that choice too... just a different sort of choice. It is a choice when to decide to give up power and create space instead, a decision when to step back and swap roles, like in a seesaw game. The times of "command and control" (unrelated to computer keyboard shortcut keys) are shifting – there is more and more realisation that what we might call "positional leadership" undergoes "redefining" from "do this" and "do that" to "how do I make everyone in my team, company, organisation, play with me?". "How do I allow for their full expression?" "How do I ensure I created a space where people have a voice and that their voice is fully heard?"
Arthur Lin, illustration of children playing music. Accessed from the artists' website.
If anyone wonders why the advice of "giving followers a voice" and "involving" matters, consider the notion presented by Brendon Burchard in his podcast episode from 2021, "How to Get People to Follow You". Burchard's main claim is this: Followers support what they create. If you want people to follow you, they must create with you. If there is no involvement, there is no investment – there is no reason to be enthusiastic, hard-working, and excellent. If you ask, "How on earth do I make my people participate with me in this process of 'creating together'?" Burchard's advice is that active participation and enrolment in conversation are "the difference maker", and your job as a leader is to hold that space, to set the standard, the expectation, and the structure for that space for other people to participate. The key point here is that the most effective leadership relationship occurs when managers also follow and subordinates also lead (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). From that perspective, we can view leadership not solely through "official positions" but rather as a negotiated, co-constructed, and collective process. This understanding responds to calls for a more balanced explanation of leadership, neither focusing exclusively on leadership nor on followership, where a leader and a follower resemble two (or more) co-producers of a leadership show. Their relationship builds on what Kotter (1977) described as a dependency relationship, in which one relies on the other, and where followership is on equal footing with leadership.
Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881).
The Big, Smelly Idea #4: "Followers & Leaders swap dynamically."
We are witnessing the redefinition of the concept of leadership in line with our global, participative, and unifying Earthly culture. This new role of a leader is centred on allowing others to rise, whilst giving yourself permission to step back. This active process of stepping in and actively stepping back to observe and listen creates a sort of music, a particular rhythm of leadership. This "rhythm" varies from team to team depending on the characteristics of the individual members constituting the particular team. Like in a music band, the responsibility for the outcomes belongs to all participating members. Especially in the context of self-managed teams, groups I observe on a regular basis, that responsibility is always shared, with everyone required to "play" their role, to think critically about what is happening, and to understand where the team is going as a whole. Burchard suggests creating conditions for others to collaborate on where we are aiming at, how we will get there, and how we will be together, which is what is required from any leader. In other words, it is the leader's responsibility to create and hold a space to not only "listen" to others and each other but also to make decisions, together, about what is important. Like in a seesaw game, the decision of who goes up and who goes down is affected by both the leader and the follower, i.e. both leader and follower decide as both are equally important. The value and meaning of "who" is seen as important, and "what" is seen as important, is being evaluated according to behaviours and actions rather than externally awarded authority. This change is perhaps most visible in the context of self-managed teams, where there is less formality and fewer "official" roles. In such structures, nobody "has to" follow others, unless they want to and choose to do so. In such a context, there is the freedom to agree, disagree, participate, stay silent, or take the first reign. Like in jazz, the creation of leadership becomes much more dynamic and fluid.
Cannonball Adderley: Mercy Mercy Mercy – Live At “The Club” (Capitol 1966)
Kellerman argues that followers all over the world are becoming bolder and more strategic, and are less likely to "know their place", do as they are told, or keep their opinions to themselves (Kellerman, 2008). Instead of saying, "If I were in charge..." or "When I am in charge...", people seem to take charge, regardless of whether they have "formal" authority or not. In other words, You do not need to wait to be given an "official" leadership position to act as a leader. You can choose to act as a leader at any time. Based on a social constructivist perspective, followership emerges from communication between leaders and followers and involves the relational process of people exerting influence and others responding to that influence. This shift in perception of who is and who is not entitled to act as a leader does not necessarily mean there is no differentiation in power and authority, i.e. the right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. The differentiation between the follower and the "officially" named leader still exists. What is changing is that this differentiation does not stop "non-leaders" from behaving like one.
The Big, Smelly Idea #5: "Followers can be Strong."
Followers and leaders must work together to achieve common goals, and regardless of the role they have, they still share a moral obligation regarding those goals. Chaleff (2010) speaks of courageous followers and their role to serve, challenge, participate, and take moral action. Moreover, there are ethical consequences not only for leadership but also for followership. Although it might seem counterintuitive, the character and behaviour of followers have an impact on leaders and organisational outcomes. Both the leader and the follower have a duty to consider the morality of one's actions and the rightness or wrongness of the outcomes of the actions and behaviours they each display. In other words, both of these roles (note, “role” not people – as I assume each of us can play each of these roles dynamically), keep leadership in shape and on track. If we continue to consider this perspective where each team member, especially in the context of self-managed teams, is both a leader and a follower, then the evolutionary perspectives of why followers are a requisite for leadership might be rather a “historic perspective”, perhaps even something we no longer need. Having a separate and rigid role of being either one or the other is not a true representation of what is occurring in teams, especially self-managing teams of the second decade of the 21st century. Whereas before, leadership might have been an evolutionary solution to boost the probability of a group's survival, in today's world, what enables teams' survival and thriving is the ability of each team member to effectively shift in their roles from leader to follower and follower to leader. Hence, what we are witnessing is “a rebalance of importance” or, to put it differently, “a rebalance in power distribution”. We have leaders able to step back and followers able to step in. Those who can shift between these roles are what we might call a “new type of leader”. These individuals take the job of a leader not because of the need for power, recognition, or status, but rather because they truly care, knowing they are called to service. Today's leadership (as often as it is not), is about doing “what is right”. This new type of leader-follower has humility, as taking the role of “doing what is right” has nothing to do with their importance.
John Dickson, in his 2011 book, "Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership", develops this idea of holding power for the good of others further. He suggests none of us needs structural authority to be a leader of influence. Just learn to lead through persuasion, example, and influence rather than positional authority. Although not true of all followers, proactive followers are committed to achieving the goals of the group or organisation to which they belong. Rather than being passive and blindly obedient to the wishes of the structural leader, these leader-followers assert themselves in ways that are in alignment with the goals of the organisation. They put the organisation's goals ahead of the leader's goals. The advantage of proactive followers is that they guard against leaders who act in self-serving or unethical ways (Carsten et al., 2014). These ideas that people take charge and step in the name of something bigger than themselves are also shared in the article by Cain (2017). She writes:
What if we said to our would-be leaders, “Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand”? And what if we were honest with ourselves about what we value? If we're looking for (...) wealth and power, let's admit it. (...) Then we can have a frank debate about whether that is a good idea. But if instead, we seek a society of caring, creative, and committed people, and leaders who feel called to service rather than to stature, then we need to do a better job of making that clear.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Season 1). Available from: powerrangers.fandom.com
As illustrated in the typologies outlined earlier in the chapter, being engaged, active, and challenging are all characteristics of effective followers. The role of leader-follower is a fluid one and a complex one. There is less dependency on a leader and less openness to being manipulated (Howell & Shamir, 2005). In both roles, each team member can learn from the other, both require support from each other, and both can be extremely strong, with the line of who is a leader and who is a follower sometimes impossible to demarcate. Both of these roles involve supporting and challenging each other, and whilst "supporting" seems much more pleasurable, it is actually "challenging" that perhaps makes the biggest difference.
Qualitative research conducted by Benson, Hardy, and Eys (2016) found that formal leaders viewed active followers as important due to their ability to offer alternative insights, solutions to problems, and independent, critical thought. These followers are highly self-aware, able to place the needs of others above their own, and rather than blindly following a leader, they focus on organisational effectiveness. They are like the extra "eyes" to make sure the leader sees the organisation from another angle (Carsten et al., 2014) and hence, a strong asset to any organisation. However, as noted by Benson et al. (2016), in some instances, followers' attempts to influence their leaders were "at the wrong time and place" and viewed as disruptive by the leader. This raises an important caveat: while proactivity is important, followers must be aware and calibrate their influence attempts by taking situational factors into account.
In her 2019 speech titled "How dare you...", Greta Thunberg spoke to world leaders. At the time, she was just a young girl, 16 years old. Although she did not have any formal authority, nor was she in a position of power or status, she was not following. She was leading. She was leading from a place of someone who had mastered their own internal power, acting and being from a place of doing what is "right". Through her actions, she was responding to something much bigger than herself, something much more important. She executed her choice and communicated her choice with power, and through voicing, placed constraints on others even though it was them, not her, in a position of "formal" decision-makers.
The performance of Greta confirms the writing of Shamir, Pillai, Bligh & Uhl-Bien, 2007 who describe followers as recipients of leader influence but also moderators of leader impact, even substitutes for leadership and leaders themselves. This yet again brings forward this idea of followers being constructors and co-producers of leadership and each of us is a leader and a follower, beyond formal roles and allocated authority. And this brings us back to the words of Suli Breaks, the spoken word poet and his "Follow the leader" performance from 2014. Suli says:
In this new world, where people actually fill proud to be a follower, understanding their role is no less or no more important. Maybe the scariest reality is that we are all leaders because we all have ideas. (...) deep down, inside you, you, you, you, there is a Red Ranger, fully "suited up", ready to swing at whatever life throws up. (...) we can change the world either way, as long as we're unafraid to make mistakes and keen to play. And then, you can see, as long as, we stop looking for other to lead the way, that creating a better world, is a piece of cake.
Illustration by Kelli Flitton, available at http://www.kelliflitton.com/new-gallery-44/
Chapter IV: The Grand Finale
As we reach the conclusion of this blog, we've embarked on a fascinating exploration of followership and leadership, delving into theoretical perspectives and drawing on ideas from team coaching practices within the context of self-managed teams. Now, it's time for us to reflect on the insights we've gathered and consider their implications.
Pause for a moment and contemplate your own leadership and followership approaches. When do you take the lead, and when do you choose to follow? How adeptly can you navigate between leading and following? Has our investigation into these topics altered your preconceived notions about leaders and followers, even if just by a hair's breadth?
As you mull over these questions, also think about how you can further develop and learn from the understanding you've gained. When will your next opportunity arise to practice the art of seamlessly shifting between roles? Or perhaps you feel that this exploration holds no significance, that striving to be our best selves in any formal role is futile. It could be tempting to maintain a low profile and avoid drawing attention to ourselves.
However, imagine embarking on a different journey – one that embraces our innate potential to be "powerful beyond measure." The choice is ours, and ultimately, the decision is deeply personal. It will always be up to you. So, take this opportunity to reflect and determine the path you wish to follow, for in doing so, you'll seize your unique leadership odyssey. It will always be up to you - as it is both for our benefit and our despair that followers, just like leaders, always have the power to decide.
Bibliography (chosen positions only):
Berinato, Scott. "On Twitter, Followers Don‟ t Equal Influence." HBR Blogs (2010).
Fairhurst, G.T. and Uhl-Bien, M., 2012. Organizational discourse analysis (ODA): Examining leadership as a relational process. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(6), pp.1043-1062.
Kellerman, B., 2008. Followership: how followers are creating change and changing leaders. Harvard Business School Press.
Northouse, P.G., 2021. Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage publications.
Uhl-Bien, M., 2006. Relational leadership theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. The leadership quarterly, 17(6), pp.654-676.
Uhl-Bien, M. and Carsten, M., 2016. Followership in context: A more nuanced understanding of followership in relation to leadership. In The Routledge companion to leadership (pp. 164-178). Routledge.
Yukl, G., 2012. Effective leadership behavior: What we know and what questions need more attention. Academy of Management perspectives, 26(4), pp.66-85.