Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 Different follower types

As you saw when defining followership in Week 1, the concept has been studied since the 1950s, when the focus was mostly leader-centred i.e. framing followers as recipients of leadership.

Seven large birds fly in a v-shaped formation. A single bird leads with the others following.
Figure 1 Followers have an important role to play.

The body of research continues to grow, taking a more follower-centred approach and currently investigating the interdependence between followers and leaders. This section explores the different types of followers you might encounter. Understanding the characteristics of different followers can make you a better follower and a better leader.

There are several follower typologies in the literature, mainly taking the leader-centred focus. One of the earliest and most widely cited is by Robert Kelley (1988), who describes five groups:

  1. Sheep – passive and uncritical, lacking in initiative and a sense of responsibility. They perform the tasks given to them and stop.
  2. Yes people – a livelier but equally unenterprising group. Dependent on a leader for inspiration, they can be aggressively deferential, even servile. In later work, Kelley refers to them as ‘conformist followers’.
  3. Alienated followers – critical and independent in their thinking but passive in carrying out their role. Often cynical, they tend to sink gradually into disgruntled acquiescence, seldom openly opposing a leader’s efforts.
  4. Survivors – perpetually sample the wind and live by the slogan ‘better safe than sorry’. They are adept at surviving change.
  5. Effective followers – think for themselves and carry out their duties and assignments with energy and assertiveness.

He makes the point that ‘followership is not a person but a role’ and explains that ‘effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts at different hours of the day.’

Ira Chaleff (2009) focuses his typology on levels of support and challenge. He describes four styles of followership:

  1. The resource – low support/low challenge – does what’s required but doesn’t go beyond the minimum
  2. The individualist – low support/high challenge – has low deference and isn’t afraid to criticise
  3. The implementer – high support/low challenge – does what is needed with minimal oversight or explanation
  4. The partner – high support/high challenge – gives vigorous support but is also willing to question the leader.

While much of the research focuses on how follower styles and behaviours can support or derail the leadership process, Carsten et al. (2010) take a follower-centred approach and explore how style and behaviour can impact on followership itself. They asked people a series of questions about their role as follower, focusing on positives, negatives, personal qualities and behaviours.

They divided the responses into three categories:

  1. Passive – taking and following orders, and deferring to the leader’s knowledge and expertise
  2. Active – offering opinions when given the opportunity but remaining loyal and obedient regardless of whether they agreed with the leader
  3. Proactive – exhibiting behaviours more aligned with partnership than dominance and submission.

Carsten et al. (p. 21) concluded that ‘followership holds a multiplicity of meaning for individuals occupying the role’. They found that the context of followership is important, and depends on variables associated with leadership style and working environment.