We hear A LOT about leadership in professional development. A quick google will give you tons of advice on how to be a great leader, give you examples of leadership tropes we should aspire to, and even direct you to a pretty comprehensive evidence base around attributes of effective leaders. But are we relying too heavily on creating these ellusive 'best-in-class' leaders? Or is our heavy focus on leadership development causing us blind spots in our thinking about how to best address the many challenges we face in the workplace today?

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Have you ever thought about the concept of followership?

It's not a term you hear used much, which is perhaps surprising given the amount of airtime given to leaders.

Leaders necessarily have followers - they couldn't be leaders without them! But this can perhaps be an uncomfortable thought.  How does it actually feel to think of ourselves as in this way? Does it limit your sense of agency or is it a concept you can happily get behind?

If we're looking at what makes effective leaders should we also be looking at the compenents of effective followership? And what does that even mean?

The vast majority of research has only explored the leadership component of the leader-follower dynamic, but there is a growing interest in the attributes of the follower. A systematic review by Burak et al. (2023) provides a summary of the work completed to date and seeks to make sense of the rapdily growing evidence of the field.

The accumulated body of work certainly suggests that followers have an essential part to play in the effectiveness of leaders, and that perhaps we should focus less heavily on single leaders, and more on how a groups of individuals interact with each other, and how leadership can be shared.

So how could we apply these findings to the workplace? Here are a few of my thoughts:

- Seek 360 degree feedback and have more conversations with 'followers' about how they'd like to influence leadership.

- Work with leaders and followers together to more deeply explore the leader-follower dynamic in context (e.g. team coaching)

- See your 'followers' as active participants in leadership, rather than passive recipients. This could include seeking 'follower' voice on key leadership decisions, including them in leadership programs, and focusing less on individual leadership training and more on skills building for the whole team on relationation topics such as conflict management, challenging conversations etc

- Move away from so called 'best-in-class' approaches, and move towards dynamic, skills-based approaches.

The study of followership is certainly a developing field that requires more research. But I hope that an exploration of the concept will help you to think about some of the unspoken dynamics of the leader-follower relationship, and perhaps think about ways you can involve 'followers' more in professionall development approaches.


Reference: Oc, B., Chintakananda, K., Bashshur, M. R., & Day, D. V. (2023). The study of followers in leadership research: A systematic and critical review. The Leadership Quarterly, 101674.



Isabelle Fielding_Logo Mark

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