Elevating Leadership Series: Leadership & Followership
110809F-FT240-123 U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Steven Armenta patrols through Qalat City, Afghanistan, on Aug. 9, 2011. Armenta is a member of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul's security force. DoD photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Elevating Leadership Series: Leadership & Followership

We’re going to scratch the surface of followership here. Get ready!

Leaders are great! Everyone loves leaders! Well, in theory, everyone loves them. What if everyone doesn’t, though? What happens, then, to leadership? Consider for a moment what would happen if people did not recognize a leader as a, well, leader. Is a leader a leader when followers do not recognize him or her as such?

Here we consider the power of followership and its impact on leadership.

Oddly enough, we rarely take into account the power of followers with respect to the empowerment of leaders. When we think of leadership, we so often envision someone of great influence hovering above his or her subordinates, commanding them and offering guidance, direction, and vision. Rarely, though, do we stop to consider the traits and efforts of the followers. After all, to be a good leader, one must also be a great a follower. In fact, only four theories (Leader-Member Exchange, Servant Leadership, Situational Leadership™, and Adaptive Leadership) of the myriad leadership theories truly take into account the presence of followers practically or as a measure of a leader’s efficacy.

I’m sorry. Who’s got time for followers? We don’t need more followers; we need more leaders. Even our parents taught us that.

You are right, our parents did tell us: “There’s only leaders in this family, no followers.” But, allow me to clarify their meaning: our parents were referring to conformist when they said, followers. They were referring to individuals who can’t make positive, constructive life-decisions. And, there are plenty of conformists out there, but we aren’t them – why else would we be discussing leadership in this blog? Conformists don’t read leadership blogs – they’re too busy looking for others to make their decisions for them (That reads far more judgmental than I meant it to sound – try not to lose me). Basically, we misinterpreted our parents’ counsel and looked at being a follower like Robert Kelley, innovator of the Followership Model, says in his article Rethinking Leadership, asserting that people compare “followers to sled dogs whose destiny is always to look at the rear end of the dog in front of them, but never to see the wider horizon or make the decisions of the lead dog” (Kelley, 2008, p. 6). However, people’s assessment of followers couldn’t be further from the truth. Kelley makes that point in his article and in his model. So, when I say follower, I’m referring to the individual or the group of individuals that competently and energetically follow the leader. Since a leader is only a leader in the presence of followers, we must consider the followers and lead with respect to and for them.

Quick anecdote: I sat at dinner with an acquaintance, who works as a Human Resource Manager and has a profound interest in industrial psychology, discussing the relationship between leaders and followers. I asked her to list three words or phrases that describe both leaders and follower:

Leaders – trustworthy, knowledgeable, and driven

Followers – listen, committed to their job, and show respect

All great attributes indeed, but let’s critically analyze them: If you were a leader, in addition to your followers listening, being committed, and showing respect, don’t you also want your followers to be trustworthy, knowledgeable, and driven? Matter of fact, if you’re the follower, don’t you want your leaders to listen, be committed, and show respect? So, then, what is the difference between good leaders and good followers?


Let’s talk theory real quick:

Robert Kelley, who I mentioned above, illustrates with his followership model that followership can be measured in two dimensions: Activity and Critical Thinking. A follower who has low activity and low critical thinking is a passive follower. Meanwhile, a follower with high activity and high critical thinking is an exemplary follower. The graphic of Kelley’s model is below:


Now, as leaders, if we consider the capabilities of our followers and their metaphysical ability to will our legitimacy as leaders into existence, we can see that building a team of highly engaged and critically thinking subordinates will afford the best possible chance for mission success. As engagement and/or critical thinking falls, so too does the capacity or frequency of amazing results. The biggest takeaway here is that even the greatest leader may not be able to achieve stellar results with a team of say…alienated personnel; a leader is far more likely to achieve stellar results with a team of exemplars, however. We must, therefore, look at followership as a resource that is just as necessary as leadership. All that said, where on the model do you think our leadership will likely be most recognized? Where on the model do you think our leadership will be less likely to be recognized? Matter of fact, where do you exist in the model as a follower?

So what is the difference between leadership and followership?

To be honest, scholars have not clearly delineated where the follower ends and the leader begins, but one thing is for sure: You have to be a great follower in order to be a great leader. So, I would suggest that the follower becomes the leader when bestowed with responsibility and authority. Leaders, after all, are responsible for discipline, while followers are responsible for self-discipline. Make sense?

That’s just my humble opinion. What’s yours?

If you want to get into the weeds about theories of followership, shoot me an email and we can discuss, and I can recommend an author or two.

Have a great one!


Kelley, R. E. (1992). The power of followership. New York: Doubleday Business.

Kelley, R. E. (2008). Rethinking Followership. In R. E. Riggio, I. Chaleff, & J. Lipman-Blumen (Eds.), The art of followership (pp. 5-15). New York: Jossey-Bass.

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