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Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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3 Can you be a leader without followers?

The answers to this question are varied, with some commentators delivering an emphatic ‘no’ and other experts exploring whether there needs to be a leader at all.

An empty lecture theatre with tiered blue seats and white walls.
Figure 3 Can you lead if you have no followers?

In a comprehensive review of the existing followership literature, Uhl-Bien at al. (2014) conclude that in the emerging field of followership research, there are two key approaches:

  1. Followership as a position or role – this approach considers how followers’ identities and behaviours influence leader attitudes, behaviours and outcomes
  2. Followership as a social process – this approach looks at followership and leadership as being co-constructed in social and relational interactions between people.

In both scenarios, followership and leadership relationships are closely linked, each influencing and interacting with the other to create the best possible outcomes.

Activity 4 Leadership from a dancing guy

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

In the following video clip, a man is dancing and others are encouraged to join him. Watch the video and consider what characteristics the man exhibits that persuade others to participate:

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In the box below, make a list of your observations.

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The man’s enthusiasm and commitment to his activity is infectious. Once people start to join him, the overall mood changes and everyone wants to participate.This tells us that anyone can start a movement without followers, but if he/she has a clear vision that is easy to follow – followers will join them. This is transferable into a workplace leadership role too. For example, you might find that a project or change proposal starts off as unpopular – people are reluctant to embrace it with enthusiasm. However, if you communicate effectively and can inspire them to get involved, their approach to followership will change. You’ll cover this in more detail in Section 5.

While it is widely acknowledged that followers play a key role in leadership, there are approaches to leadership that blur the traditional roles of leader and follower.

Shared leadership

Shared leadership is defined by Pearce and Conger (2003, p. 1) as ‘a dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both’.

This means that leadership behaviours are exhibited by a set of individuals rather than following the more traditional model of a single person. Leadership is no longer seen as a role, but as a shared function or activity.

It can be a useful approach in a complex, technical environment where the expertise of different members of a multidisciplinary team becomes relevant at different stages of a project.

Shared leadership can create a strong sense of shared responsibility and facilitate effective collaboration, but relies on excellent communication and without this, can impede the decision-making process.

You can find varied examples of shared leadership across the business world, for example:

  • ICT solutions provider Huawei has three CEOs who each take charge for six-month periods in rotation.
  • The Anglo European School in Essex has two Co-Headteachers working alongside each other full time, sharing executive authority.
  • Shared leadership is the model that underpins the NHS’s Medical Leadership Competency Framework – allowing multidisciplinary teams to pass leadership from individual to individual at relevant times along a patient’s pathway of care.

Another, more radical approach, known as ‘Holacracy’, attempts to distribute leadership between all employees, removing the traditional leader–follower relationship altogether. You’ll find out more about this in Week 7.

Even within these different approaches, each individual will have needs and responsibilities that require nurturing and support. In the next section, you’ll explore these needs in more detail.