Understanding followers has key implications for understanding leadership

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by Adam Vanhove


Historically, leadership scholars have ignored followers, treating them as passive and obedient recipients of leaders’ heroics and motivational magic. However, followers serve a critical function, namely without them there is no one to lead. A better understanding of followership may also be just what we need to advance our understanding of leadership.

The role followers play in leadership was recognized about 50 years ago, and today leadership is usually defined as a process of a leader and one or more followers working together towards some goal. Nonetheless, it is only recently that the study of followership gathered any real momentum.

Societally, we have accepted the idea that leaders are heroic and followers are obedient, and that makes intuitive sense.

However, emerging research reveals that many of the attributes and behaviors associated with effective followership look very similar to the attributes and behaviors long associated with effective leaders. 

Along with better understanding the role of followers, emerging interest in followership may hold the key to better understanding the concept of leadership by forcing us to test some long-held assumptions about leaders and followers.

First, it forces us to think about how changes in things like technology, organizational structures and employment relations may be shifting some of the responsibilities traditionally prescribed to leaders onto followers. More specialized work, leaner and flatter organizations, and greater responsibility for their own career development by employees all muddle the distinction between traditional leader and follower roles. 

Photo of Adam Vanhove next to a graphic of a boat at sea heading into a large wave as the leader points the way.

Second, it forces us to consider from where leaders come. Many who lead may have earned those opportunities by being good followers. Many effective leaders bring with them at least some of the qualities and behaviors developed and proven to be effective in follower roles.

Third, and this is perhaps the most interesting, it forces us to question whether much of what we have long assumed to be important to effective leadership is actually the same stuff important to being good at any number of different things. By juxtaposing leadership against followership, we may realize there is little unique about leaders and leading, but rather that common attributes and types of behavior have far reaching benefits.

Adam Vanhove is a professor in the School of Strategic Leadership Studies at James Madison University. His research focuses on followership and leader-follower relations.

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Published: Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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