This paper presents the examination of followership in the context of leadership, focusing on the definition of the concept of a follower and its nature. The discussion begins with the identification of followers’ roles and types, including their potential positive and negative impact on leaders. Five types of followers are distinguished, paying attention to such dimensions as activeness and critical thinking: alienated followers, conformists, pragmatic survivors, effective followers, and passive followers. Furthermore, the paper delves into the behavioral competencies of followers and evaluates them from the point of ethics. In pustular, courage, the ability and desire to communicate, relationship building, adaptation to the changing circumstances, and being a resource are noted. The issue of follower development is considered from the perspective of understanding what makes their performance successful based on the Leader Member Exchange (LMX) theory and Chaleff’s Courageous Follower Model. Ultimately, the situations when leaders become followers are discussed in detail.
“The leader finds the dream and then the people. The people find the leader and then the dream” (John C. Maxwell).
The core intent of leadership is to build strong communication both inside and outside an organization to develop a shared culture, translate values, and clarify the vision. Leadership is a continuous process to achieve these goals and consider employees as followers, which is important to provide them with learning opportunities. By aligning followers, a leader inspires and encourages them to expand their minds and fully recognize their workplace responsibilities (Daft, 2014). If teams do not understand their organization’s vision and fail to carry out the vision, even the most experienced leaders are likely to be unable to accomplish their goals. Therefore, followership is regarded as not only following the directions but also actively participating in pursuing organizational aims. A good follower realizes his or her essential role, and a good leader is to properly motivate followers.
This paper aims to research followership as an integral part of effective leadership, beginning with the definition of the concept and the types of followers. Both ethical and unethical competencies are explored in terms of followers’ behavioral competencies, which is supported with examples. Some ways to develop followers to become leaders are discussed to pay attention to the strategies that help in managing a leader’s performance. In addition, the situations when leaders become followers are taken into account, including the signs of complacency or deflecting accountability. It is expected to research the academic literature and synthesize available knowledge to better understand followership.
Roles of Followers in Effective Leadership
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, followership is defined as the “capacity or willingness to follow a leader” (Followership, n.d.). In organizations, followership and leadership are understood as interrelated phenomena that exist as discrete dimensions. As stated by Daft (2014), the art of followership can be conceptualized as the creation of a place for opportunities, on the one hand, and their enthusiastic practice, on the other hand. Accordingly, leaders inspire their followers, while followers allow their leaders to keep efficient and people-centered control of a situation.
Roles and Types of Followers
Followers are a group of people actively interacting with their leader to cooperatively resolve the assigned tasks, influencing the leader through their attitudes, and behaviors on the result of joint activities. Effective followers are proactive, committed, and courageous employees, who provide support to the leader. The situation is strengthened when the leader, in turn, is seriously interested in corporate goals and values. The examples include situations in the military and navy, when teams support their commanders in solving assigned tasks, taking the initiative, and avoiding unnecessary conflicts (Epitropaki et al., 2017). Consequently, the desire to take part in and contribute to change is one of the follower roles. Effective followers view the participation in change as a responsibility of all members of the organization. In times of complex transformations, such people endorse their leader without fear of innovations.
Carsten et al. (2016) highlight several characteristics of followers that reflect their roles, such as openness, the ability to take risks, justice, readiness for accountability, and serving people. Clear beliefs and willingness to speak out to the leader, despite the risk of losing their job, is critical for organizational transparency. The ability to take risks implies questioning the status quo, participating in change, or even leaving the organization if necessary (Epitropaki et al., 2017). The desire to take responsibility is related to a sense of belonging to the mission of the organization, thus creating opportunities for their development. Good followers do not wait for a leader or organization to keep them safe and create the conditions for growth. Instead, they try to design opportunities for their development and unleash their potential.
Striving for justice is another role of followers, which refers to ensuring a harmonious communication in an organization. Carsten et al. (2016) consider that a follower should have clear moral principles that he or she never violates for the sake of the so-called general harmony. Such a person will oppose the leader if the latter’s actions are contrary to the interests of the organization. A true leader surrounds him or her with followers who can express their point of view. For example, the CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner, recruited Larry Ricciardi as a vice president and corporate consultant, while knowing that he would question his superior’s decisions, if necessary (Carsten et al., 2018). Leaders can be wrong, and the effectiveness of a leader mainly depends on followers who can honestly state their position and support it with arguments so that major failures can be avoided.
The willingness to serve other people and understand the needs of the organization is one more role that allows for directing followers’ efforts towards achieving the goals set. In this case, a follower is like a leader serving other people since a supportive follower can complement the leader in areas where the leader is less competent. By showing a desire to serve others, a follower instills optimism and excitement in those around him or her. For example, George Bush, who served as US Vice President under Ronald Reagan, has shown the qualities of an outstanding follower (Carsten et al., 2018). Having his viewpoint and at times entering into disagreements with the president, he has always publicly supported Reagan for the good of the country and never brought matters to open confrontation. Such an approach shows that the leader and his follower managed to successfully cooperate for the common goal.
Followership types depend on the extent to which a person is an active or passive as well as creative or non-creative thinker. Kelly distinguishes between five types of followers, including an alienated follower, conformist, pragmatic survivor, effective follower, and passive follower (Daft, 2014). An alienated follower is understood as an individualist who has a healthy skepticism about the organization; they are capable yet cynical. A conformist actively participates in the activities of the organization and completes orders, but does not show critical thinking. A passive follower entirely relies on leaders, seeking to avoid responsibility; they require constant direction and control. The pragmatic survivors demonstrate the qualities of the other four styles, depending on the situation as such people avoid risks and try to maintain the status quo (Daft, 2014). Ultimately, effective followers are independent, committed to innovations, and ask leaders tough questions, which is essential for organizational success.
While each of the mentioned types of followers can exist in a company, the last effective follower is noted as the most preferable. Among the strong features of such followers, there is their activeness and independence, which may seem likewise the expression of leadership characteristics (Daft, 2014). For example, they value workplace diversity and treat every colleague equally, understanding that their contribution to the organization can be great. More to the point, they seek for the ways to develop their knowledge and skills, setting examples for others. The courage with which effective followers act in case of conflicts or misunderstanding allows them to resolve the most complicated issues. The willingness to initiate change and mindfulness help them in making a positive impact at the workplace and stay committed to their company. Nevertheless, alienated followers are also critical and independent thinkers, and even though they are likely to be passive (Carsten et al., 2018). For example, if there are several strong leaders, some extent of passivity can be useful to follow the course of action that was identified by them.
Followers’ Behavioral Competencies: Ethical and Unethical Practices
The growing body of the evidence shows that likewise leadership impact is critical for followers, the management approach taken by the latter is also essential. It is important, first of all, to understand a leader, focusing on his or her weak and strong sides, potential failures, and opportunities. Accordingly, certain energy and time should be spent learning more about the leader by followers. The continuous process of the adaptation to the changing circumstances is identified by Daft (2014) as beneficial for understanding the leader’s behavior and choosing the corresponding support options. Many employees have concerns regarding the fact that their supervisors do not recognize or listen to them, while it may be more effective to look at their behaviors before blaming them. In other words, there are behavioral competencies that followers can practice to make relationships with leaders more open and efficient.
Being a resource for the leader in the first behavioral competence that lies in the foundation of the teamwork. By identifying the leader’s needs and aligning the self to the team vision, a follower can serve as the basis for the leader’s decisions. At the same time, it is recommended by Rosenbach (2018) to build close relationships by sharing personal viewpoint, telling the stories, and welcoming both constructive criticism and feedback. There are situations when a leader should be told the truth instead of mere encouragement from employees. In this case, it is unethical to support the ideas of the leader that seem to be incorrect or expected to fail. The discussion of the experiences and arguments that lead to one or another decision is one of the strategies of followers’ ethical behaviors (Rosenbach, 2018). Also, followers can motivate the leader to share some company stories, which is useful for strengthening workplace relationships.
The ability and desire to communicate is another behavioral competence of followers that can make either negative or positive influences. From the ethical perspective, a good follower stimulates the leader to interact by asking advice and thanking him or her. On the one hand, if the follower lacks proper communication strategies or is not interested in communication, it degrades the relationships and violates teamwork. On the other hand, a good communicator can provide a great impetus for the development of the leader since the pertinent strategies would be chosen. Daft (2014) claims that viewing the leader realistically is one more significant behavioral competence, which implies avoiding leader idealization, disagreeing occasionally, being candid, and abstaining from criticizing the leader to others. These ways are expected to improve the leader’s performance by assisting him or her to become a good leader (Daft, 2014). For instance, followers can help leaders to prevent ethical problems by providing timely advice or clarifying the reasons for the conflict. Since the weaknesses and strengths of leaders are viewed by followers, it becomes much easier to build and maintain relationships.
Managing up can be associated with several unique challenges, and a lack of perceived control is one of the most critical ones. For many employees, relationships with their superiors are associated with the power of the latter. However, managers also need the support of their subordinates, which is expressed in talents, willingness to cooperate, honesty, and brilliant ideas (Daft, 2014). The exploitation of employees by showing them the exaggerated power of supervisors can be noted as one of the examples of unethical practice. In this case, supervisors need to understand that supportiveness from both sides is the key to the increased productivity. Being helpful to employees evokes the feelings of appreciation and empathy, which is useful for organizational success.
The passion to promote one’s growth is the behavioral competence that shows the accountability of employees. Those of them who are ready to take action to stimulate personal growth takes an ethical approach as they do not merely rely on leaders. Such an approach ensures leverages new ideas and growth opportunities since they are discovered by followers instead of being solely offered by leaders (Daft, 2014). For example, if followers willingly accept and complete complex tasks and work in a team, it points to their passion. Accordingly, a lack of enthusiasm is likely to limit the process of development or even lead to a regress. In addition, leaders expect that their followers would be motivated to stay involved in what is happening inside and outside the organization. In other words, they want followers to be attentive to each other, clients, supervisors, and any other parties, which leaves no place for complacency and routine. A lack of sufficient responsiveness can be identified as unethical since it violates the goal of building and strengthening relationships.
Ways to Develop Followers
One of the most important issues that are directly related to understanding the nature of succession is the development of followers. In an old paradigm with the complete dominance of the leadership component, the development of followers often meant increasing their leadership potential. At the same time, it seems that following is just as important component of any activity as leadership. At the heart of the desire to follow, which implies developing, helping, improving, implementing, et cetera, is the need to implement the idea proposed by the leader or fulfill the task. As Daft (2014) notes, the qualities required for an effective leader are identical to those required for an effective follower. The author states that genuine followers can think independently, thus performing assigned tasks with energy and enthusiasm. They are committed to something that goes beyond their interests and can stand up for their beliefs. From time to time, a person can be both an effective leader and an effective follower, skillfully playing one or the other role that depends on the situation (Daft, 2014).
An in-depth analysis of the motivation of company employees shows that at the personal level, the motive of following is the motive for leadership for a significant number of people (Bufalino, 2018). In some works, the thesis about the need for total leadership development among all employees of a department is questioned. For example, Belbin empirically shows that teams, all of whose members have a pronounced leadership potential, establish average productivity in activities that simulate market activity (Bufalino, 2018). The years of research assume that in successful teams, the processes of leadership and followership should be balanced. An effective team must represent both the team player / the soul of the company and experts, people who are immersed in the performance of functions that are far from leadership and closer to the implementation. In this connection, leaders should engage followers in teamwork by assigning tasks to pairs and larger groups. Those employees who succeed in cooperating with colleagues are more likely to grow professionally.
Unlike most approaches to the study of leadership, a Leader Member Exchange (LMX) theory not only recognizes the significance of followers’ role in leadership developments, but also emphasizes that the followers and the leader jointly regulate the quality of their relationships. The authors of the theory argue that effective leadership occurs when the leader and followers are capable of developing a mutual relationship and thus exploit the benefits that the partnership brings (Bufalino, 2018). Mutual influence is manifested in the main method of forming relations that is the negotiation process. Considering that this theoretical approach is closest to the goal of followership, it deserves considerable attention. Another theory, the normative decision model of Vroom-Yetton, which is devoted to the situational theory of decision-making by a leader, indicates the need and prescribes ways to involve subordinates in decision-making (Rosenbach, 2018). This takes into account their characteristics such as commitment, the likelihood of support for the solution, as well as the possibility of a conflict among followers.
Chaleff’s Courageous Follower Model implies that followers’ courage should be developed in several dimensions (Rosenbach, 2018). In particular, there are five dimensions, such as support to the leader, challenging leader decisions, taking a moral stand, assuming accountability, and participating in changes. Of these dimensions, the courage to take part in transformations is probably the most important one, considering that the pace of modern economic, politic, social, and environmental changes is extremely high. Those followers that do not accept changes doom their companies to the collapse in the future. For example, David Chislett, who took a management position in Imperial Oil’s Dartmouth refinery, was asked to leave this position to return to a wage earner post (Daft, 2014). In turn, this employee agreed to the request, understanding that it is a part of the company’s transformational strategy and that he should contribute to the necessary change. This example confirms that the effective followership posits on the commitment of followers to their organization, which can also be identified as the courage to serve its needs, thus acting according to the common mission.
The leader becomes attractive to followers due to the ability to see what will ultimately be achieved as a result of his or her and the followers’ efforts. However, this is not any goal or any state of the organization in the future (Daft, 2014). More of this is what followers want or can have. In addition, a vision becomes attractive if it is larger or better than the existing reality. In other words, to a certain extent, the idealization of the future state is allowed as it can help followers to visualize what exactly should be done. The vision captures the imagination of followers and motivates them to devote themselves to making it a reality to the extent that they share the leadership vision (Daft, 2014). A vision that gives strength to followers makes them believe in the success of the organization.
By communicating the vision to followers in a way that inspires enthusiasm and commitment, the leader can be assisted by using effective communication. In contemporary conditions, people can be prompted to action by the fact of their direct conscious participation (through property or process) in decisions and their creative implementation, which implies giving them the appropriate rights and powers. This means that the leader must have the ability to share his or her power with the followers, make them part of a common cause, and not blind performers (Rosenbach, 2018). Accordingly, effective leadership should be perceived as a standard or firm hand, but a high degree of sensitivity to the needs of followers, which manifests itself in the development of employees, their inclusion in group work, and helping them in accomplishing personal and professional goals.
Relationship behavior can be recommended to develop followers as one more important aspect. It is associated with the need for a leader to listen more to subordinates, provide them with support, inspire, and involve them in management. In turn, the work-related behavior requires the leader to educate followers about what and how they should do to complete their tasks. The behavioral leaders should structure, supervise, and closely monitor how people perform. The combination of these two types of leadership behavior makes it possible, within the framework of this model, to identify four main leadership styles, each of which most closely matches a certain degree of maturity of the followers: pointing, persuading, participating, or delegating (Rosenbach, 2018).
When Leaders Become Followers
In the modern world, sometimes people are to make leadership decisions, while, tomorrow, such a leadership responsibility is to be done by a follower. Leaders and followers are interrelated: those who are ready for transparency and responsibility to jointly and constructively discuss problems and, if something happens, sacrifice their ego for the sake of a result become successful (Pietraszewski, 2020). Therefore, both sides should learn to hear and listen to each other. Independent, proactive, courageous, and committed followers support leaders. However, there are some situations when leaders become followers, which can be positive or negative to the company. For example, it was found that a person becomes a leader precisely because of the willingness of people to follow him or her. Nevertheless, Lopis (2013) states that people tend to follow those who can more clearly formulate their goals and objectives, determine the ways and means of their solution. Followers go after those who are considered capable of providing them with the means to satisfy their desires, aspirations, and needs. If a leader fails to accomplish these issues, he or she leaves to become a follower.
Leaders become followers when they cannot see the opportunities and take risks. If they prioritize authority instead of unleashing their passion to the organizational goals, they become followers even while having a leading position. According to Lopis (2013), “Leaders make bad decisions for many reasons – because they rely too much on past experiences, are addicted to corporate politics, mismanage resources, don’t see opportunity – but especially when they don’t trust themselves enough to lead and decide to follow”. Playing it excessively safe is one of the key reasons when leaders turn out to be followers. As they do not speak up and fail to view risks as something natural, their contribution to the organization becomes minimal. Consequently, they start waiting for people around them to make decisions and take responsibility (Lopis, 2013). The related situation is associated with deflecting accountability, which is the main sign of the leader’s inability to effectively. In this case, it is better to concede the position to another leader.
If a leader looks for recognition instead of respect from employees, it can be regarded as one more sign of the desire to protect his or her stature by any means rather than working productively and being committed to the company. As rationally noted by Lopis (2013), those leaders who do not apply their unique styles are doomed to the failure since they only use standard schemas and strategies. In today’s environment, it is critical for a leader to be authentic to stand out from the crowd so that their followers would truly respect them. However, if a leader is afraid to be original, he or she becomes a follower to be led by others (Pietraszewski, 2020). For example, it is unacceptable for an authentic leader to mimic one’s leadership style and solutions since personal ideas compose the basis for successful organizational development. Thus, if the leader is not ready to act in case of emergencies and uncertainty, he or she can be identified as a follower.
It should be stressed that when leaders become followers, the situation should not always be considered as adverse. For the common mission of a company, it might be better if new leaders would try their efforts, and if the experienced employees would act as followers, who better understand the internal structure of the organization (Lopis, 2013). As followers, ex-leaders seem to be important to share their knowledge and skills and evaluate the changing situation from a new perspective. Their openness to the colleagues is likely to provide more benefits compared to serving as leaders. Among the examples, one can mention the ability to build relationships, stimulate discussions, and promote teamwork.
To conclude, followership is an important and inalienable part of leadership, while both phenomena are interrelated. The impact of followers on leaders is great since the former can contribute to unleashing the potential of the latter. Effective followers are committed, proactive, and courageous, which makes them useful advisers, responsible implementers, and communicable teammates. Depending on the extent of activeness / passiveness and critical thinking, there are alienated follower, conformist, pragmatic survivor, effective, and passive followers. The critical review of the available literature shows that effective followers dare to criticize their leader, providing arguments and feedback, while also listening and responding to his or her needs and behaviors.
In terms of behavioral competencies, followers are expected to have the ability and desire to communicate, serve as the resource for the leader, and view the leader realistically. If followers always agree, follow any idea, and fail to think critically, it is unethical with regards to the leader since he or she needs transparency and adequate support. To develop followers, it is recommended to apply the Leader Member Exchange (LMX) theory and Chaleff’s Courageous Follower Model. In case leaders fail to discover new opportunities or act independently and authentically, they turn out to be followers who need guidance. Such situations should not be perceived negatively as organizational transformations result in changes, which, in turn, improve the overall performance of organizations.
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