For the last year I have been researching how undergraduate students view leadership. But one of the most interesting themes that have emerged from the data is about followers. Students can articulately define the role of leaders, the importance of leaders, describe their beliefs about leaders, the characteristics of leaders, whether they see themselves as a leader, and they can identify leaders they admire. However, when asked to do the same for followers, students blank — they literally can not describe an effective follower.
According to these research participants, the primary function of followers is to support leaders. While a small number of students noted that followers should be able to think for themselves, most students saw the role of follower as passive, obedient, and task oriented. At the same time, they recognized that followers are essential to attaining an organization’s goals. Yet, they don’t see themselves as followers, but rather as leaders.
So what’s going on here? I just searched “leadership” on Google and 5.5 billion results came back. When I searched “followership,” there were 1.25 million results. Our society is obsessed with leaders. While we are convinced that good leaders are essential to achieving organizational goals, yet the data suggests that we attribute far too much of the success or failure of an organization to leaders (Meindel, 1985). While we celebrate leaders, we rarely acknowledge the followers who make it happen.
Are followers really just there to support the leader? Are they really obedient sheep who do what the shepherd tells them to? Or do they have more traits? Leaders view good followers as enthusiastic, industrious good citizens, while bad followers as incompetent, conforming, and insubordinate (Sy, 2010). Followers, however, see their role as either passive or as active co-contributors (Carsten, 2010).
Perhaps more interesting, we tend to associate women with follower roles and men with leader roles, which creates a “sticky floor” for women, holding them in follower roles and creating a glass ceiling, preventing women from attaining leader roles (Braun, Stegmann, Hernandez-Bark, Junker, 2017).
Most of us spend most of our time as followers. Maybe it is time to teach people how to be effective followers. To celebrate the ideal followers in our lives. To examine our biases about who is fit to lead and who should follow. Can you describe the ideal follower? Can you name a good follower? If you have any ideas about followers, feel free to share them with me.
Braun, S., Stegmann, S., Hernandez Bark, A. S., & Junker, N. M. (2017). Think manager-think male, think follower-think female: Gender bias in implicit followership theories. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 47(7), 377–388. https://doi.org/gfxf3k
Carsten, M. K., Uhl-Bien, M., West, B. J., & Patera, J. L. (2010). Exploring social constructions of followership: A qualitative study. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3), 543–562. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2010.03.015
Meindl, J. R. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1), 78–102.
Sy, T. (2010). What do you think of followers? Examining the content, structure, and consequences of implicit followership theories. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 113(2), 73–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2010.06.001