You Need to be a Follower

Gordon Curphy, President, Curphy Consulting Corporation | January, 2011


Virtually everyone is a follower at some point in his or her life. And perhaps more importantly anyone occupying a position of authority plays a followership role at times, as first-line supervisors report to mid-level managers, mid-level managers report to vice presidents, vice presidents report to CEOs, CEOs report to Board of Directors, etc. This being the case, followership should be viewed as a role, not a position. It is worth keeping in mind that some jobs have clear leadership requirements; virtually all jobs have followership requirements. Given that the same people play both leadership and followership roles, it is hardly surprising that the values, personality traits, mental abilities, and behaviors used to describe effective leaders can also be used to describe effective followership.

There are times when situational demands require that individuals in formal followership roles steps in to leadership roles. For example, a sergeant may take over a platoon when her lieutenant is wounded in battle, a volunteer may take over a community group when the leader moves away, a software engineer may be asked to lead a project because of their unique programming skills, or team members can be asked to make decisions about team goals, work priorities, meeting schedules, etc. That being the case, those followers who are perceived to be the most effective are those most likely to be asked to take a leadership role when opportunities arise. So understanding what constitutes effective followership and then exhibiting those behaviors can help improve a person’s career prospects. Effective followership plays such an important role in the development of future leadership skills that freshman at all the United States service academies (the Air Force Academy, West Point, Annapolis and the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine Academics) spend their first year in formal follower rules.

Travelling down the path set by service academics, it may well be that the most effective people in any organization are those who are equally adept playing both leadership and followership roles. There are many people who make great leaders but ultimately fail because of their inability to follow orders or get along with peers. And there are other people who are great at following orders but cause teams to fail because of their reluctance to step up into leadership roles. The more people develop leadership and followership skills, the more successful they will be.

Followers Get Things Done
It is important to remember the critical role followers play in societal change and organization performance. The Civil Rights and more recent Tea Party movements are good examples of what happens when angry followers decide to do something to change the status quo. And this is precisely why more totalitarian societies, such as North Korea, Myanmar, or Iran tightly control the amount and type of information flowing through their countries. Nothing gets done in organizations without followers, as they are people closest to the customers and issues, creating the products, taking orders, and collecting payments. Research has consistently shown that more engaged employees are harder working, more productive, and more likely to stay with organizations than those who are disengaged. Moreover, ethical followers can help leaders avoid making questionable decisions and high performing followers often motivate leaders to raise their own levels of performance. Wars are usually won by armies with the best soldiers, teams with best athletes usually win the most games, and companies with the best employees outperform their competitors, so it is to a leader’s benefit to surround him or herself with the best followers.

The Psychology of Followership
Although asking why anyone would want to be a leader is an interesting question, perhaps a more interesting question is asking why anyone would want to be follower. Being a leader clearly has some advantages, but why would anyone freely choose to subordinate his or herself to someone else? Why would you be a follower? Evolutionary psychology hypothesizes that people follow because the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs of going it alone or fighting to become the leader of a group. Twenty thousand years ago most people lived in small, nomadic groups, and these groups offered individuals more protection, resources for sourcing food, and mating opportunities than they would have had on their own. Those groups with the best leaders and followers were more likely to survive, and those poorly led or consisting of bad followers were more likely to disappear. Followers who were happy with the costs and benefits of membership stayed with the group; those who were not either left to join other groups or battled for the top spots. Evolutionary psychology also rightly points out leaders and followers can often have quite different goals and agendas. In the workplace, leaders may be taking actions to improve job security. Therefore, leaders adopting an evolutionary psychology approach to followership must do all they can to align followers’ goals with those of the organization and insure that the benefits people accrue outweigh the costs of working for the leaders, as followers will either mutiny or leave if goals are misaligned or inequities are perceived.
However, social psychology tells us that something other cost-benefits analyses may be happening when people choose to play followership roles. There are some situations when people seem all too willing to abdicate responsibility and simply follow orders, even when it is morally offensive to do so. The famous Milgram experiments of the 1950s demonstrated that people would follow orders, even to the point of hurting others, if told to do so by someone they perceive to be in a position of authority. You would think the popularity of the Milgram research would subsequently inoculate people from following morally offensive or unethical orders, but a recent replication of the Milgram experiments showed that approximately 75 percent of both men and women will follow the orders of complete strangers whom they believe occupy some position of authority. Sadly, the genocides of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur may be all too real examples of the Milgram effect. For leadership practitioners, this research shows that merely occupying positions of authority grants leaders a certain amount of influence over the actions of their followers. Leaders need to use this influence wisely.

Social psychology also tells us that identification with leaders and trust are two other reasons why people choose to follow. Much of the research concerning charismatic and transformational leadership shows that a leader’s personal magnetism can draw followers and convince them to take action. This effect can be so strong as to followers to give their lives for the cause. The 9/11 terrorist attacks; the Mumbai, Bali and London Tube bombings; the attempted bombing of the Delta airlines flight in December 2009; and suicide bomber attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of the personal magnetism of the Osama Bin-Laden and the Al-Qaeda cause. Although most people do not have the personal magnetism of an Osama Bin-Laden or a Martin Luther King is a subset of people who can engender a strong sense of loyalty in others. Those with this ability need to decide whether they will use their personal magnetism for good or evil.

It is highly unlikely that people will follow if they do not trust their leaders. It can be very hard to rebuild trust once it has been broken, and followers’ reactions to lost trust typically include disengagement, leader or seeking revenge on their leaders. Many acts of poor customer service, organizational delinquency and workplace violence can be directly attributed to disgruntled followers feeling betrayed and the recent economic downturn has put considerable strain on trust between leaders and followers. Many leaders, particularly in financial service industry, seemed perfectly happy to disrupt the global economy and layoffs thousands of employees while collecting multimillion-dollar compensation packages. Given the lack of trust between leaders and followers in many organizations these days, one has to wonder what will happen to the best and brightest followers once the economy picks up and jobs become more readily available.

A Framework for Followership
A final question or finding coming from the followership research concerns follower frameworks. Over the past 40 years or so researchers have developed various models for describing different types of followers. These models are intended to provide leaders with additional insight into what motivates followers and how to improve individual and team performance. When all is said and done the frameworks developed by these researchers have more similarities than differences, and a more detailed description of the Curphy-Roellig Followership Model can be found below:

The Curphy-Roellig Followership Model builds on some of the earlier followership research of Robert Kelley, Ed Hollander, and Barbara Kellerman and consists of two independent dimensions and four followership types. The two dimension of the Curphy-Roellig model are Critical Thinking and Engagement. Critical Thinking is concerned with a follower’s ability to challenge the status quo, identify and balance what is important and what is not, ask good questions, detect problems and develop workable solutions. High scores on Critical Thinking are constantly identifying ways to improve productivity or efficiency, drive sales, reduce costs, etc.; those with lower scores believe it is the role of management to identify and solve problem, so they essentially check their brains in at the door and not pick them up until they leave work. Engagement is concerned with the level of effort people put forth at work. High scores are energetic, enthusiastic about being part of the team, driven to achieve results, persist at difficult tasks for long periods of time, help others, and readily adapt to changing situations; low scores are lazy, unenthusiastic, give up, easily, are unwilling to help others or adapt others or adapt to new demands and generally would rather be doing anything but the task at hand. Engaged employees come to work to “win” as compared to coming to work “to play the game.” It is important to note the engagement does not necessarily mean working 70-80 hours a week, as people can be highly engaged and only work part-time. What one does at work is important than the number of hours worked, but generally speaking highly engaged employees tend to spend more time focusing to the challenges at hand than disengaged employees