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Followership; The natural complement to leadership.

While leaders in law enforcement organizations constitute an important element in the success of their agencies' missions, equally significant are those who follow. One cannot exist without the other, and the success of any department depends upon both elements working in concert toward common organizational goals. Leaders make decisions on policy and oversee the development of plans for the success of the organization. Followers implement these plans and carry them through to completion. Although separate entities, leaders and followers are indelibly connected.



American culture usually does not hold followers in very high regard. Fascination with leaders far outweighs any consideration for followers. But, at some point, everyone is following, rather than leading.

Being a follower forms a natural part of life. Even leaders will transition from leading to following on numerous occasions every day. Indeed, with few exceptions, most people will spend the majority of their lives in a followership role. Yet, followership, or the act of following a leader, rarely garners the research community's attention and, subsequently, is not as well understood as leadership.

To begin research on the topic, it is necessary to first understand why followership is worth studying. (1) Although the concept seems self-explanatory and relatively simple, analyzing it can provide a greater understanding of leadership that, in turn, can foster the development of ways to enhance an organization's success.

As the term suggests, a follower is a person who follows the leadership of another. But, it is much more than that. Followership actually represents an interaction that occurs when subordinates work concurrently with leaders toward a goal of the organization. When viewed in this context, it becomes obvious why the law enforcement profession should examine the concept of followership. (2)



Understanding followership is paramount for navigating the complexities involved in encouraging subordinates to do their best. Effective followers are invaluable for their many sought-after traits, such as intelligence, independent thinking, self-reliance, and dependability, that can lead to accomplishing an agency's goals.


Intelligence, perhaps, is the most important characteristic inherent in effective followers and holds the key to all of the other aspects of such individuals. Intelligence allows followers to think for themselves and not rely solely upon a leader for guidance in the performance of their duties.

Independent Thinking

Independent thinking, while indicative of great leading, also lends itself to effective following. The ability to think independently means that a person does not wait to be told what to do. Instead, independent thinkers look ahead to determine what needs to be done. In doing so, they can anticipate problems and creatively develop plans to deal with potential difficulties before they occur.


When people can think for themselves and seek solutions to their own problems, they become self-reliant, another quality present in effective followers. Such subordinates can ease the burdens placed on their leaders. Self-reliance allows followers to function without specific instructions from their superiors.


Just as self-reliance is linked to independent thinking, dependability is connected to self-reliance. Indeed, this trait may represent a crucial characteristic of effective followers. It enables leaders to trust their subordinates and depend on them to follow directives, thereby accomplishing organizational goals.

Additionally, such employees assume responsibility for their actions--both good and bad. That, in turn, facilitates their willingness to take certain risks. Employees who evade responsibility for their own conduct also avoid risks, no matter the possible gains. Many great accomplishments have resulted from those willing to extend themselves to try new approaches while, at the same time, remaining completely aware that the failure of such actions ultimately would rest with them.

Related to this trait of taking responsibility is the need for effective followers to speak truthfully. Understandably, this can come with a certain amount of risk. However, an organization can be come crippled if its employees fail to voice their honest opinions when they run contrary to those of the agency's leaders.


Filling a leadership position does not make a person a leader; a distinction must be made between the two. Leadership positions are a formality. Rank structures ensure that all personnel know who technically is in charge. Leaders, on the other hand, may not necessarily hold such positions but be recognized simply by the influence they have on others around them.

The traits of effective followers are quite similar to those of effective leaders. Therefore, by concentrating efforts on developing competent followers, agencies, in essence, are creating their future leaders.

Proficient followers regard themselves as equals with their leaders. They do not consider their leaders as necessarily superior. That does not mean that their leaders may not possess greater knowledge regarding a specific job or task. Instead, it refers to the idea that, given the opportunity to learn, the follower is just as intelligent and capable as the leader. The concept of equality may threaten some leaders who mistake it for arrogance or even possible insubordination. Because capable followers voice their concerns and offer suggestions, some leaders may take this as a challenge to their authority. But, adept leaders of strong character would not view it this way and, instead, would see it as an opportunity to play a part in developing their followers into future leaders. After all, the education and growth of their subordinates constitute major objectives for leaders.


The climate of the organization plays a pivotal role in whether in-depth follower development will take place. If leaders feel compelled to protect their positions and make themselves indispensable by withholding certain knowledge from their subordinates, full followership development will not occur. Agencies must ensure that their personnel feel secure in their positions.

In addition, departments must demonstrate to all of their employees that working together to achieve goals is in everyone's best interest. To this end, organizations must recognize exemplary performance and reward it appropriately. When leaders create an environment where followers are assured that hard work will not go unnoticed, they establish a foundation for accomplishing organizational goals while, simultaneously, allowing for the greatest development of the individual. This reinforces the concept that all members are followers.


Followership is an integral part of any law enforcement agency. Leaders cannot exist without followers. Throughout their lives and in any organization, employees will spend the majority of their time in a follower role as opposed to a leadership position.

Many of the traits that denote effective followers are the same as those exhibited by the best leaders. That is why it is incumbent upon agencies to develop their followers. By creating an environment whereby followers can fully recognize their abilities, departments can enhance the accomplishment of their goals. Additionally, by developing their followers, organizations ensure an ample pool of future leaders.


(1) For examples, access The Balance of Leadership and Followership: Working Papers at retrieved on February 6, 2007.

(2) For additional information on the concept, see Robert E. Kelley, The Power of Followership: How to Create Leaders People Want to Follow and Followers Who Lead Themselves (New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, 1992); and Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, 2nd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2003).

RELATED ARTICLE: Ten Rules of Good Followership

1. Don't blame your boss for an unpopular decision or policy. Your job is to support, not undermine.

2. Fight with your boss if necessary, but do it in private. Avoid embarrassing situations and never reveal to others what was discussed.

3. Make the decision, then run it past the boss. Use your initiative.

4. Accept responsibility whenever it is offered.

5. Tell the truth and don't quibble. Your boss will be giving advice up the chain of command based on what you said.

6. Do your homework; give your boss all the information needed to make a decision; anticipate possible questions.

7. When making a recommendation, remember who probably will have to implement it. This means you must know your own limitations and weaknesses, as well as your strengths.

8. Keep your boss informed of what's going on in the unit.

9. If you see a problem, fix it. Don't worry about who would have gotten the blame or who now gets the praise.

10. Put in more than an honest day's work, but don't ever forget the needs of your family.

Source: Phillip S. Meilinger, "The Ten Rules of Good Followership," AU-24 Concepts for Air Force Leadership; retrieved on February 6, 2007, from

Additional Resources

* R. Kelley, "In Praise of Followers," Harvard Business Review, November-December 1998.

* Sharon Latour. "Dynamic Followership: The Prerequisite for Effective Leadership," Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2004 ( documents/latour2.doc).

* J. Rosenau, "Followership and Discretion: Assessing the Dynamics of Modern Leadership," Harvard International Review, Fall 2004.

* W. Bennis, An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 1993).

* Robert Earl Kelley, The Power of Followership: How to Create Leaders People Want to Follow and Followers Who Lead Themselves (New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, 1992).
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Title Annotation:Perspective
Author:Martin, Richard
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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