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Vol. 33, No. 5

In a leadership-focused world, followers matter, too

by Jill Stewart

When Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here" he declared himself a leader who took responsibility for what happened—or didn’t happen. But author and Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman posits, "We are in the age of the follower, and followers have always been more important than we generally give them credit for."

This statement may seem both counterintuitive and somewhat unappealing, given the historical underappreciation of the role of the follower. But even though they have been less studied and certainly less promoted, followers are not without their value in the arc of human history.

Few view being a follower as the path to success, but followers are essential to the success of their leaders. That’s according to Kellerman, who spoke on the importance of "followership" at the joint Midyear Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the National Association of Bar Executives, and the National Conference of Bar Foundations, in Boston this February. And while followers are important when they do something—which seems obvious—they are equally important when they do nothing. Doing nothing matters to the group, organization, or a nation such as Nazi Germany, as Kellerman details in her book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

Kellerman believes followers are more important than they have ever been, and that they are essential to today’s leaders. In an earlier Midyear session, Kellerman discussed the leadership half of the equation, explaining the impact of bad leaders on organizations and on history. For a recap of that session, visit:

"How important is the follower to the leader?" she asked the audience at the "followership" workshop. "You cannot do bad leadership without bad followership." This concept, she noted, is relatively novel in a culture that exalts leaders, trains and coaches leaders, and publishes "a billion books" on leaders.

The historical perspective

Citing the American and French revolutions, the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the civil rights and women’s movements, and the publication of four seminal documents, The Communist Manifesto, Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, Letters from a Birmingham Jail, and The Feminine Mystique, Kellerman said, "Power has trickled down over human history from top to bottom, from top to middle." The Internet, which Kellerman called a total revolution in mass communications in this century, enables "followers to grab power away from leaders" more than ever before.

For example, she recalled, when former Harvard president Larry Summers made a remark some years ago regarding some "intrinsic" reasons why women were less successful in science and engineering than men, he "set off a firestorm." Within minutes, women went "screaming out of the room to the Boston Globe," and in a matter of weeks, the comment became an international phenomenon.

Part of the reason, Kellerman said, is that faculty members—who don’t typically think of themselves as followers—used e-mail, text, and cell phones to mobilize a relatively large group of people in a short period of time. Summers received a Harvard first—a faculty vote of no confidence—and resigned a year later.

Not all followers look alike

Most leaders do not refer to others as their followers, Kellerman noted; instead, they prefer terms such as employee, constituent, or stakeholder. But the reality, she said, is that we are all followers in certain settings.

We tend to lump all followers together, Kellerman said, but they vary greatly. She identified five types of followers differentiated by their level of engagement. It’s likely that those in the audience recognized some of their bar members among the first four types:

Isolates are detached and do not care about their leaders, know them, or respond to them in any way.

Bystanders observe but do not participate.

Participants are engaged, and they either clearly favor their leaders, groups, and organizations, or they are clearly opposed; they "invest" their time to make a difference.

Activists feel strongly about their leaders, and they act accordingly.

Diehards—as their name suggests—are literally prepared to die if necessary for their cause, whether it be an individual, an idea, or both. They are either deeply devoted to their leaders or ready to remove them from positions of power, authority, and influence by any means necessary.

What’s a follower to do?

Whether you call yourself a member, an employee, a voter, or a constituent of any kind, there are responsibilities to being a good follower. Kellerman offered these guidelines:

Good followers should support leaders who are both effective and ethical, and should oppose leaders who are ineffective and unethical. That sounds simple enough, but there are a few ways to shirk one’s duty as a follower, and chances are, most readers and audience members have seen them in action.

Directly supporting a bad leader—one who is ineffective and unethical—is the most obvious one. But what about the follower who does nothing and is not involved in any way in the organization? That’s bad followership, too, Kellerman noted, because it allows bad leaders to flourish unchecked. Finally, opposing a leader who is both effective and ethical constitutes bad followership.

Kellerman called for a new era when society is not exclusively "leader fixated and leader focused," one when we "understand the more complex dynamics of leadership and followership." Leaders are vulnerable in ways they have never been before, she said, and although followers lack authority, they do not lack power or influence.