A common idea in the western cultural beliefs of the United States is that everyone needs to be a leader. “Be a leader” is preached on television shows, in songs, in marketing advertisements, by school counselors, college professors, many community organizations, politicians, and most employers. While there is always a need for strong leaders and leadership, there is a reciprocal need for followers able to commit to and advance an agenda set by a leader. Some people need to be the leaders, the ones with the vision and ideas about where to go or what to change, and others need to be followers, completing the tasks and enacting the ideas to make the change a reality.
Leaders are often perceived or projected as strong individuals and role models that deserve respect and admiration. The best leaders project confidence, are intelligent, passionate, enthusiastic, inspirational, resilient, self-reliant, empathetic, and lead with a vision and purpose. Followers are often perceived as weaker individuals who might be too mentally soft to take on the mantle of leadership, too unmotivated to push organizations forward, or too lazy to care. On television and in literature followers are portrayed as passive yes-people, bumbling dolts that are good henchmen but not active thinkers, or people that simply do what everyone else feels is proper. People may be afraid to admit that they are a follower, because perceptions of followers and followership is so negative in society.
While there are many different types and styles of leadership, there are a variety of followership styles that a person can personify. Robert Kelley (1988) described five styles of followership that vary between being passive or active, and independent critical thinkers or dependent uncritical thinkers.
Using Kelley’s model (1988), one of the stereotypical disengaged followers is a passive follower, often referred to as sheep. These followers are dependent on the leader to tell them what needs to be done; critical thinking skills and initiative are not present. Passive followers go with the proverbial flow, do what they are told to do, and stop. An example of this would be a warehouse worker who will move the case of paper towels to the west side of the warehouse because that is what they were specifically directed to do when the leader said to move the paper products. The passive follower may not notice, and probably will not care, that several other cases of paper products are there and should be moved, as well. Many will agree that this is an ineffective follower and does not portray any leadership abilities.
A second type of follower, according to Kelley’s model (1988), are conformist followers, often referred to as yes-people. A conformist follower is more active than a passive follower, but they rely on the leader for inspiration and does not undertake their own critical thinking. Conformist followers often feel that the leader’s idea is perfect and will act as a servant to complete the idea. An example of this would be a warehouse worker who will move the entire stock of paper products to the west side of the warehouse because the boss said it was a good idea but the worker did not take into account that the roof had a leak on that side and the paper products would all be destroyed in the next rain. Conformist followers, while active, are far from a type of leadership.
One of Kelley’s follower types (1988) is capable of independent critical thinking but they are disengaged and not active in carrying out their role. These are alienated followers. Alienated followers are often cynical or skeptical, something made them angry, disgruntled, or frustrated with the situation they are in. Alienated followers might have good ideas but, rather than trying to carry them out, they will simply accept what is occurring, quietly opposing the leaders’ efforts. An example of this would be the warehouse worker who moves the entire stock of paper products to the west side of the warehouse, as directed, but knows this is a mistake because of the leak in the roof. Rather than speaking up about the potential problem, the worker does as told because they do not care to correct the issue. Alienated followers could have leadership skills because they have intelligence and vision; they have lost passion and enthusiasm, which stops them from being leaders.
In the center of all types of followers, according to Kelley (1988), is the pragmatist, or survivor. These followers will fluctuate between the other four types of followers and live by the motto “better safe than sorry”. Pragmatists could have strong leadership abilities, if they choose to apply themselves, or they can take on other characteristics not in line with leadership.
The most active type of follower, according to Kelley (1988), who utilizes independent critical thinking is identified as an exemplary follower. An exemplary follower can think for themselves, act as needed to carry out their duties often identifying problems and points out the problems to the leader before the problems become insurmountable, and be unafraid to question the leader. An exemplary follower will be accountable for their actions and make independent decisions for the good of the movement. To complete the previous example, a warehouse worker directed to move the paper products to the west side of the warehouse will inform the person giving the direction that there is a leak in the roof on that side of the warehouse and it might not be a good idea to move the products there as they can be destroyed in the next rain. The exemplary follower will suggest a more ideal location for the product, and remind the leader that the roof needs repaired. This type of follower demonstrates intelligence, enthusiasm, self-reliance, and purpose, characteristics shared with leadership.
There is a misconception that a leader is always a leader in every situation, and a follower always follows. Every person fills a variety of roles throughout their day, some being a potential leader, and others being a follower. The CEO of a major company, who is seen as a leader of the company, must rely on their chief financial officer (CFO) and chief sustainability office (CSO) to ensure the company is on track for long-term success. The CEO will follow the CFO or the CSO to keep the company moving in the right direction. In the hierarchy of a hospital in the United States, a chief nursing officer is usually seen as the top nurse, followed by nursing unit managers, clinicians, charge nurses, and bedside nurses. A bedside nurse may feel that they are always the follower. A bedside nurse follows the initiatives of the chief nursing officer, follows the policies of the hospital, and follows the orders of the physician. The bedside nurse also leads patients back to health or a positive outcome, leads an interdisciplinary team in providing optimum care for their patients, and can lead an initiative in evidence-based practice.
When acting as a follower, there is a choice in which type of follower one will be. Acting as a passive conformist follower will not help a person to progress in an organization and will ensure they are not viewed as a leader. Acting as an exemplary follower, which incorporates leadership traits, will show that the person is a leader as a follower, and could take on leadership roles in the future. All followers need to make a conscious decision of what type of follower they will be and how they will personify their followership. By being a strong and engaged follower, the opportunity is there to be a leader.
Please consider the following questions and exercises:
- Followership can be referred to as a unique form of leadership. What does this phrase mean to you?
- In today’s society, we are often told to be a leader and display leadership skills. If everyone is a leader, who are they leading? How can followership fit into a world where everyone is encouraged to be a leader?
- Reflect on an experience you had in the past where you functioned as a follower. Which type of follower were you and why did you select that classification?
- After reading the above, watch the YouTube video First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy. What does this video tell you about leadership and followership? How can you incorporate this into your work as a nurse?
- Would you categorize the nurses on 5B as followers? If so, which type of followers were they?
First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy
The Art of Followership: How to Be an Invaluable Team Player
Business News Daily, February 12, 2020
Management, Leadership, and Followership
YouTube video, RogerReece.com
Kellerman, B. (December 2007). What every leader needs to know about followers. Harvard Business Review, 12, 84.
Kelley, R. E. (1988, Nov/Dec). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 66(6), 142–148.
McCallum, J.S. (September-October 2013). Followership: the other side of leadership. Ivey Business Journal
Vozza, S. (2018). How to be a good follower (and why it’s a skill you need). Fast Company.