Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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1.2 Defining followership

Research on followership began in the 1950s, but didn’t start to generate significant interest until 1988, with the work of Robert Kelley. You’ll find out more about his work in Week 5. Early research focused on followers as passive participants in the leadership process. Now there is a growing body of research that presents leadership as a shared endeavour between interdependent followers and leaders.

Crossman and Crossman (2011) reviewed the academic literature to better understand the concept of followership. They cite authors with leader-centred views, for example:

  • Followership may be defined as the ability to effectively follow the directives and support the efforts of a leader to maximise a structured organisation (Bjugstad et al., quoted in Crossman and Crossman, 2011).
  • Followership can be defined as a process in which subordinates recognise their responsibility to comply with the orders of leaders and take appropriate action consistent with the situation to carry out those orders to the best of their ability (Townsend and Gebhart, quoted in Crossman and Crossman, 2011).

These appear alongside more follower-centred perspectives, such as:

  • Followership is the process of attaining one’s individual goals by being influenced by a leader into participating in individual or group efforts toward organisational goals in a given situation. Followership thereby becomes seen as a function of the follower, the leader and situational variables (Wortman, quoted in Crossman and Crossman, 2011).
  • Followership is a relational role in which followers have the ability to influence leaders and contribute to the improvement and attainment of group and organisational objectives (Carsten et al., quoted in Crossman and Crossman, 2011).

In this video clip, Rebecca Fielding, Managing Director of Gradconsult, defines followership from the perspective of an employer.

Download this video clip.Video player: lf_1_video_week1_section1_fielding.mp4
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We are all followers, but what we gain from that relationship can vary widely depending on our reasons for following, our enthusiasm for the methods and goals of the leader, and our own skills and characteristics. In this next activity, you’ll consider the leaders you follow.

Activity 2 Who do you follow?

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

In the box below, write a list of the leaders you follow and your reasons for following them. You might follow them in the workplace, or virtually through social media.

Consider these questions:

  • Is your ‘followership’ experience a positive or a negative one?
  • How does this experience affect you as a follower?
  • What is your relationship with the leader?
  • How does being a follower help you to reach your own goals?
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You’ll explore followership later in the course (Week 5), from the perspectives of a follower as well as a leader. You’ll learn how important it is for a leader to support and develop their followers, and how important good followers are in achieving a leader’s vision. You’ll also reflect on the interdependence between followers and leaders in reaching positive outcomes for both individuals and businesses.

You may be realising that the themes of this course are not as easily defined as you previously thought! Yet their complexity is what makes them so interesting, and the aim of this course is to simplify some of that complexity by providing a practical, real-life context in which to consider them.

In the next section, you’ll move on to look at the differences between leadership and management.

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