Leader-Follower Engagement


I recently read “Followership” by Barbara Kellerman (thanks to Doug Strycharczyk for his copy) which classifies followers into 5 different groups: isolates, bystanders, participants, activists and diehards [sic].  Kellerman goes on to write a chapter about each type of follower using examples from history, society and the corporate world.

One of the most striking things about such a classification is the number of people we can identify in our everyday activities who fall into the isolates and bystanders categories i.e. those who do not participate in the leader-follower transaction.  Even more striking is how we, ourselves, are prone to falling into these categories whether through boredom or just not caring.

This is nowhere more obvious than the workplace.  How many people just go through the motions; are just there to pay the bills; are just there because it was the best option of a poor choice;  because there was no alternative; because they are now so de-motivated they can’t even motivate themselves to change jobs, etc?  This is probably the single most important challenge facing all leaders: how to “mobilise the disengaged“, to quote Pulitzer prize-winner James McGregor Burns.

In her book Kellerman emphasises the importance of the follower, arguing that too much weight has been given to the leader and yet to demonstrate the influence of followers, presents cases where followers react (or at least the participants, activists and diehards react) to poor leadership.  Thus the driving force behind these followers’ actions is the leader.  Ultimately followers are only followers by virtue of having a leader.  So while Kellerman argues it is futile to discuss leaders at the exclusion of followers, to discuss followers as more important than leaders is equally futile.  An understanding of both however, is a good place to start when actively seeking to ”mobilise the disengaged“.

Recommended read: “Followership” by Barbara Kellerman, Harvard Business Press (2008)

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