There’s a lot of attention given to leaders. In fact, there are endless books written on the top, bordering on leadership overload. According to Gary Yukl, one of the most prominent and profound leadership researchers in the world, there are as many definitions of leadership as there are researchers working to define the concept. And yes, leadership is extremely important. But, what about the followers? After all, a leader can’t be a leader without someone to follow.
The image of sheep might come to mind when you think about followers. However, recent research on the leadership-followership relationship points to the idea that followership is an active process in which both the leader and the follower hold power and responsibility in the relationship. Kelley (2008) defines five types of followers including star followers, yes-men, pragmatist, sheep (yes, there are some followers who do act like sheep), and alienated. Each of these follower types contributes to the success or failure of the leadership.
According to Kelley’s description of followers who range from sheep, who idly follow their leader’s direction and guidance, to star followers who enthusiastically engage in the leader-follower relationship by offering support to or challenging the leader when needed to actively work towards the achievement of the organization’s goal. These types of follower behaviors can be identified and operationalized by examining various types of leadership styles such as authoritarian, transactional, transformational, and charismatic leadership process.
Operationalizing Followership in the Authoritarian Leadership Process
Authoritarian leadership is a one-way, directive leadership process in which the leader holds the decision-making power and dictates instructions and directions to followers (Cheng et al., 2004). Authoritarian leaders use the autocratic form of Vroom and Yetton’s decision-making model in which leaders either make decisions based on the information they have available to them at the time or only involve the followers in the process as a means of information gathering. Followers have no voice in the actual decision-making process and may not even know that they are gathering information to aid the leader in making decisions relevant to their jobs or the organization. Authoritarian leaders often have legitimate or position power (French & Raven, 1962).
So, what does that mean for followers of authoritarian leaders? In this leader-follower relationship, followers have little, if any, voice and are not active participants in the process. They are relegated to the characteristics of sheep, as described by Kelley (2008). The followers are told what task to complete, how to complete the task, and when the task should be completed. This type of leader-follower relationship might be observed in a mechanistic organization where employees are viewed as interchangeable cogs (Morgan, 2006). Followers may not feel a personal sense of connection to their role. Although followers often lack individual status and power in the organization, followers typically outweigh leaders in their numbers. In some cases – such as with factory workers, government employees, and teachers – followers have joined together to form unions to make their voices heard when working in mechanistic or bureaucratic organizations. Unions have provided a mechanism for followers to engage in other followership behaviors such as challenging the leadership or organization when they believe a process is unfair or might cause harm to employees or customers.
At the end of the day, these followers are far less committed to the organization or to their leader. They are more likely to leave because they are not satisfied with their jobs.
Operationalizing Followership in the Transactional Leadership Process
Transactional leaders create an environment and relationship with followers in which followers expect to receive a reward for completing a task or a punishment because work was not completed (Kuhnert, 1994). According to Kuhnert and Lewis, transactional leaders involve themselves in two processes – contingency reward and management-by-exception. Contingency reward involves the “transaction” of reward for services rendered. These rewards include such benefits as salary, higher positions, or job security, also known as hygiene factors (Herzberg, 1959). Management-by-exception involves a leader watching for followers to make a mistake or only intervening when followers get off course (Kuhnert & Lewis).
So, what does that mean for followers of transactional leaders? Followers in this type of leader-follower interaction can have several characteristics. Followers might hold their own self-interest higher than that of the group and act in a way that promotes their progress towards achieving a goal because their reward depends on their performance (Bass & Avolio, 1993). Followers in transactional relationships also tend to be focused on short-term outcomes rather than long-term goals (Bass & Avolio, 1993). This type of relationship could lead to followers behaving as “yes-men”, according to Kelley’s (2008) description of followers. This type of follower is like the sheep follower in that they support the leader’s position and complete the task given to them by the leader. However, “yes-men” often have energy and a positive attitude. In the transactional relationship, this could be because successfully completing the task means the follower is closer to receiving a reward. The follower may be less willing to challenge the leader for fear of being punished.
These followers could also become alienated. Kelley (2008) describes alienated followers as those who have the skills and talent to get their job done on their own and with little direction and supervision from the leader. However, the followers might also possess negative energy or feelings towards their work.
Operationalizing Followership in the Transformational Leadership Process
Transformational leadership involves leaders who cast a clear and compelling vision to followers, serve as social architects for their organizations, understand their own strengthens and weaknesses, demonstrate concern for followers (Kouzes & Posner 1987; Bennis & Nanus, 1985). These leaders exhibit idealized influence, individual consideration, inspirational motivation, and intellectual stimulation (Bass, 1985; Bass & Avolio, 1993). One important factor to understanding follower behavior in the transformational leadership process is the idea of individual consideration. Transformational leaders demonstrate care and concern for follower growth and are concerned with their development. Transformational leaders engage with followers (Bass & Avolio, 1993) and may participate more heavily in consultative or group decision-making in which the leaders involves followers in the process (Vroom & Yetton).
So, what does that mean for followers of transformational leaders? Followers of transformation leaders would be more willing to participate as star followers. Kelley (2008) describes star followers as those who both support and challenge the leader. For example, if the follower believes that a decision by the leader might take the organization in the wrong direction or might have some unintended consequences for employees, they would be more willing to speak up to challenge the leader. This willingness to engage with the follower could be derived from the leader’s demonstration of their own values and because the leader has clearly articulated the areas in which the leader has strengthens and those in which the leader depends more heavily on the expertise of followers. The willingness to challenge the leader could also be due to the leader’s clear articulation of where she hopes the organization will go and how she desires for the organization to get there. Transformation leadership creates an environment for followers to actively engage in the process.
Operationalizing Followership in the Charismatic Leadership Process
Charismatic leaders have a special quality that makes them attractive as leaders (Weber, 1947). These leaders might emerge during an organizational social crisis and come to be viewed as the hero or solution to the problems of the organization. They can clearly communicate a plan and galvanize followers around the plan.
So, what does that mean for followers of charismatic leaders? Followers become excited and energized by the leader and want to work towards the leader’s compelling vision for the future. Followers in this relationship can fall into a process of blindly following the leadership of the charismatic leader and become “yes-men,” as described by Kelley (2008). These followers might also become the victims of groupthink. According to Janis, groupthink is a behavior in which members of a group or team might not speak up to challenge the ideas or direction of the people around the table for fear of disrupting cohesion. This type of behavior could result in catastrophic mistakes for the group or organization. Charismatic leaders who are unethical might also lead followers down a dark path to making decisions that are illegal or that lack moral foundation.
And Finally, to the Point…
Leadership and followership work in tandem and are interdependent. Followership comprises one necessary and vital side of the leader-follower relationship and can include behaviors that can be helpful or harmful to the leader and the organization. As researchers continue to expand on the followership literature, the significant role of followers is becoming more and more apparent. Organizational leaders and managers can benefit from added learning about how their behaviors affect those of their followers. Additionally, leaders and managers can look for opportunities for followers to receive both followership and leadership training. According to Greenleaf (1977), effective leaders develop other leaders. The concepts of leadership and followership are so closely intertwined that some of the characteristics of effective leaders such as listening and communication, have also be identified as those of effective followers. Leadership and organizational consultants can also explore developing joint training about how to improve both leadership and followership skills and characteristics for companies and organizations.