Saturday, July 05, 2008

Types of Followers

Recent books have examined every aspect of leadership. Few have addressed challenges for those of us who follow, that is to say everyone at some time in our lives. There are a few exceptions. Abraham Zaleznik wrote about "The Dynamics of Subordinacy" more than four decades ago. Fifteen years ago, Jack Gabarro and John Kotter published a piece called "Managing Your Boss," in which they advocated: (1) understanding your boss and his or her "goals and objectives, pressures, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and preferred work styles"; (2) understanding yourself and your needs, including "strengths and weaknesses, personal style, and predisposition toward dependence on authority figures"; and (3) developing and maintaining a relationship that is centered around such things as frequent communication, an understanding of mutual expectations, dependability and honesty, and selective use of "your boss's time and resources."
Now Barbara Kellerman in her new book, Followership, asks where leaders would be without good followers. This question may be particularly significant in an age when followers find it easier to organize by means of the Internet at the same time that, in Kellerman's opinion, "cultural constraints against taking on people in positions of power, authority, and influence have been weakened." Kellerman goes on to say: "The fact is that followers are gaining power and influence while leaders are losing power and influence." In fact, in recent years we have seen management experiments with teams in which it is difficult to identify a leader.
Kellerman describes five types of followers: isolates (completely detached), bystanders (observers only), participants (engaged), activists (who feel strongly and act accordingly, both with and against leaders), and diehards (deeply devoted). Dismissing the first two groups as antithethical to good followership, and by extension, potentially supportive of bad leadership (as in Nazi Germany), she focuses on behaviors of the other three types. Of these three, "participants" seem to me to offer the most potential for long-term, productive relationships between subordinates and their bosses, particularly in large organizations. Participants work hard either in support of or against the policies and practices of their leaders. As Kellerman puts it, "they care enough … to try to have an impact."
Clearly it's in the best interests of successful leaders to understand and capitalize on the needs of such subordinates. Leaders need to be constantly aware of something that several of us have discovered in our research: Every decision made by a leader—particularly decisions involving hiring, recognizing, and firing people—is judged by 10 or 15 subordinates, who regard the "fairness" of those decisions as one of the most important factors in the quality of their work life.
This observation raises some questions for us. As a follower, what advice would you give to other followers wishing to have an impact on their jobs and organizations? As a leader, what do you do to foster good followership? Why isn't followership addressed by business school curricula along with leadership? Does it belong in a course of study? Or does this just run the risk of deteriorating into a discussion of how to manipulate your boss? What do you think?

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