In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

The Leadership Imperative and Essence of Followership(Part 1)


Author: Darren Dalcher     Source: PMWJ
Many conversations about improvement, enhancement, governance, progress and the future inevitably resort to addressing leadership issues. Leadership is increasingly viewed as an essential life skill, a practical ability to guide other individuals, a team, an organisation, or even a country, towards a better future, an improved position or a defined outcome. But where do we find examples of great leaders?

Traditionally, archetypal samples would emerge from either the political or the business arena, but in recent years both have been found wanting. Yet, as we face ever more complex and uncertain dilemmas and increasingly vexing wicked problems, there appears to be a greater need to identify and follow strong and powerful leaders.

What worked before?

Great leadership is sometimes measured in terms of the followers that it engenders. This may well be a dangerous idea. Former US Speaker of the House, Ohio Congressman John Boehner asserted back in 2015 that ‘a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk’. General George S. Patton had an even more direct approach in mind when he proclaimed ‘Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.’ Ironically, despite the plethora of publications exploring effective leadership, relatively little has been written about the role of effective followership. In a private conversation with a leading architect and chief executive of the infrastructure and construction part of the London 2012 Olympic Games, he expressed an exasperation that we teach leadership and tell people what they ought to be doing, but we hardly ever “teach” followership as we implicitly assume that following is easy, or well understood. According to Robert Kelley (1992) only 20% of the success or organisations is traced to the leader, while in practice 80% of the credit should be going to followers.

Kellerman (2008; p. xix) defines followers as ‘subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line”. Yet, followers are neither homogenous nor uniform. Kellerman’s book (2008) offers a fluid typology, which can be positioned along a spectrum, indicating the rank or level of engagement by followers, encompassing five main types:

Isolates: utterly detached and disinterested individuals who keep a low profile, rarely respond to leaders, resent interferences from above, and reinforce the status quo by default

Bystanders: observers who follow passively and let events unfold with little participation, while accepting control from above

Participants: engaged individuals who typically care about their organisation and support their leader with their effort or time when they agree with their vision and views

Activists: eager, energetic and deeply engaged individuals working for the cause and the leader

Die-hards: individuals displaying the highest levels of engagement with the organisation or their cause; all-consuming supporters exhibiting total and absolute engagement

Good followers therefore actively support effective and ethical leaders. It is thus expected that ‘good followers’ would also respond appropriately to bad leaders in the interest of the greater cause and the wider organisation. Kellerman’s chief concern is about mindless, or unquestioning followers, and their impact. Based on historical events, die-hards may agitate and activists may follow blindly and encourage participants to take part, while bystanders may simply allow events, however painful or harrowing, to take place, whilst others choose to ignore the entire scene. Historical precedents offer some credibility to the notion of mapping the level of engagement and

participation (Kellerman, 2004). They also seem to suggest that bystanders and other participants may tolerate, or even embrace harmful actions with little, if any, questioning (see for example, Dalcher 2016 for a summary, or Zimbardo, 2007, for more detail). The direct implication is that followership needs to be taken more seriously; it also needs to encompass some sober responsibilities.

Beyond toxic leadership

Equating leaders with ‘traditional’ leadership theory, as we often do, is only seeing a limited part of the picture. The notion of leaders who can do no wrong, has been tarnished by less than responsible business and political leaders and a series of environmental and business crises. Toxic or destructive leadership seems to thrive on three essential ingredients: destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments (Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, 2007). Recent evidence suggests that leaders can no longer assume unwavering loyalty and trust. Nor can leaders take it for granted that followers will continue to exhibit unquestioning behaviours.

Nonetheless, hierarchical structures continue to imply that wisdom, and insights, always descend from above, reflecting Plato’s preference for larger than life philosopher-kings endowed with charm, vision and forcefulness as rulers. Modern society affords a greater belief in the power of groups and in the ability of collections of individuals to get together, participate, engage, identify new concerns and propose alternative courses of action (Dalcher, 2015). But what is their remit? And what is their scope for doing right?

Keith Grint (2000) offers a panoramic view of multiple successful leaders, encompassing profiles of political and military figures such as Horatio Nelson, business tycoons such as Richard Branson and Henry Ford and other well-recognised historical figures including Florence Nightingale and Martin Luther King. While the book may well celebrate their successes, Grint opts instead to feature their propensity to fail and make mistakes. What appears to distinguish those we regard as successful leaders is their cadre of followers who support and cover up for them. Grint therefore concludes, that ‘the trick of the leader is to develop followers who privately resolve the problems leaders have caused or cannot resolve, but publicly deny their intervention.’ (Grint, 2000; p. 420)

In subsequent work, Keith Grint (2010) invokes Karl Popper as a proponent of an alternative and counter-intuitive approach that focuses on the inherent weakness of leaders and the need to inhibit, restrain and accommodate such deficit:

‘Karl Popper provides a firmer foundation for this in his assumption that, just as we can only disprove rather than prove scientific theories, so we should adopt mechanisms that inhibit leaders rather than surrender ourselves to them.’ (Grint, 2010; p. 101) 

Interpreting the writing with a contemporary lens implies an intellectual revolution in the way we view and react to leaders and leadership. It calls for moral and responsible judgement thereby transforming the more transactional nature of the association between superior and subjects into an ethically and morally meaningful relationship.

Popper is thus cognisant of the potential risk of not deploying fully engaged, forever questioning and scrupulously uncompromising followers:

‘Otherwise, although omniscient leaders are a figment of irresponsible followers’ minds and utopian recruiters’ fervid imaginations, when subordinates question their leader’s direction or skill,these (in)subordinates are usually replaced by those ‘more aligned with the current strategic thinking’ – otherwise known as yes people. In turn, such subordinates become transformed into irresponsible followers whose advice to their leader is often limited to destructive consent: they may know that their leader is wrong, but there are all kinds of reasons not to say as much, hence they consent to the destruction of their own leader and possibly their own organization too.’ (Grint, 2010; p. 101-2)

Popper consequently holds followers responsible for their actions, and not least for not exercising their ability to inhibit the shortcomings and errors of their leaders. In an about face reversal of the hierarchical assumption of a free license to simply follow orders from leaders, he thereby engenders groups and individuals with responsibility to correct the course of leaders as constructive dissenters. This position offers an informed participative role as surely therein lie the true roots of effective followership embedded within an implicit social and moral contract between the leader and her true followers. Rejecting the typical question of Who should rule? as the fundamental question of political theory, Popper advances the alternative position of: ‘How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?’ (Popper 1945; 121).

The simple reframing places followers in a much more critical position, emphasising their role in securing and maintaining the enduring success of their mission, team, kingdom or empire. Drawing on Popper’s proposition, good followership can thus be redefined around the ability to correct, steer and guide the leader towards securing improved outcomes, better alignment and more informed consent through the creative power of the wider group or community. This could perhaps be done by invoking the principles of teaming (for further information, see, Dalcher, 2018), by resorting to building greater trust (Dalcher, 2017), or through the use of social media, which seems to be creating a shift in the balance of power between leaders and followers (Kellerman, 2012).

(To be continued)
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