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The value of followership.

Leadership is an ongoing preoccupation for the innovation community. Every company wants to be a market leader, and many rely on innovation to provide that leadership. At the national level, innovation ensures economic and technical leadership. And those broader forms of leadership are built on individual leadership: CTOs and CEOs who create and support the environments that nurture innovation; managers who provide the inspiration, encouragement, and support teams need io do amazing things; individual scientists and engineers who step up into ad hoc leadership roles when called upon. Often, the success of an extraordinary company is attributed to an iconic leader--think Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sam Walton. (The list could be much longer; Fast Company's 2005 list of the 20th century's greatest business leaders runs to 50.)

It's not surprising, then, that so much attention, in management generally and in innovation specifically, is devoted to leadership--defining it, identifying its key traits, helping employees develop it, spotting it in potential new hires. Hundreds of books have been written about business leadership, from the memoirs of famous CEOs to ethnographic studies of what constitutes leadership and qualitative analyses of the correlations between particular leadership traits and business performance. Two recent IRI Research projects, reported in three recent RTM articles ("The Role of Leadership in Innovation" and "Exploring the Principles of R&D Leadership" in our May/June 2017 issue, and "Success Factors in R&D Leadership" in this issue), seek to identify the distinguishing characteristics of R&D leadership.

But all of this work, important as it is, ignores the importance of the complementary concept--followership. In our driven business culture, no one wants to be seen as a follower. "Team player" perhaps implies some amount of followership, but being referred to as a "good follower" never supercharged a career. Still, as Robert Kelley wryly notes in his seminal 1988 paper on the topic, followers are every bit as critical to an organization's success as leaders, if not more so: "Without his armies, after all. Napoleon was just a man with grandiose ambitions."

Everyone is a follower at some point, and being a good follower can require as much attention as being a good leader. A conscious attitude toward followership can support the development of critical leadership attributes. Raymond de Villiers points out in a comprehensive overview of followership theories that the "key to being a good follower is realistic and effective self-leadership." Kelley notes, in his HBR paper, that the most effective followership arises from self-management combined with commitment, competence, and courage--all attributes generally associated with leadership.

A key element in Kelley's concept of followership, which he outlines in more detail in his 1992 book, The Power of Followership, is the idea that followership is not merely a transitional state or a training ground for leadership. People may actively choose followership. For instance, many of the most prolific inventors--the people who come up with the game-changing ideas that build platforms and transform markets--are not leaders. They do their own thing, and they have little interest in leading others or moving up a conventional career ladder. Understanding the followership practiced by these contributors--and other conscious followers--is critical to keeping them motivated, engaged, and productively aligned with the organization's ethos and strategy.

To support such an understanding, Kelley developed a taxonomy of five followership styles, arrayed along a continuum from dependent (uncritical) to independent (critical) thinking and from passive to active participation. Sheep fall in the lower left corner of Kelley's matrix; they are passive and uncritical, doing only as they are told. In the upper right are Effective Followers--critical thinkers and active participants who can take the initiative, solve problems, and manage themselves effectively. Survivors fall in the middle of the matrix; these followers shift with the political winds and are adept at surviving change. Alienated Followers and Yes Men fall at the upper left and lower right, respectively and represent opposite extremes--disengaged cynics who question everything but rarely act and "aggressively deferential" sycophants who never question the boss's judgment.

In the three decades since Kelley's article, a handful of other researchers have looked at followership, each producing a different framework and typology. (Mary Uhl-Bien and her colleagues provide an overview of the state of followership theory in their 2014 article in Leadership Quarterly.) Some have lost sight of Kelley's insistence on followership as a viable choice in its own right--Barbara Kellerman's 2007 HBR article defines followers entirely in opposition to leaders. Followers, she says, "are low in the hierarchy and have less power, authority, and influence than their superiors. They generally go along to get along, particularly with those in higher positions. In the workplace, they may comply so as not to put money or stature at risk. In the community, they may comply to preserve collective stability and security--or simply because it's the easiest thing to do."

This definition echoes the popular perception of followers as passive sheep and suggests that long-term followership is to be avoided. It is also at odds with two of the five types of followers Kellerman includes in her own typology--activists, who "are eager, energetic, and engaged" and "work hard either on behalf of their leaders or to undermine and even unseat them," and diehards, who will act for or against leaders out of an "all-encompassing commitment" to a principle or an organization. Kellerman's distinction between good and bad followership hinges on a willingness to act in response to their assessment of their leaders: "Followers who do something are nearly always preferred to followers who do nothing.... Good followers will actively support a leader who is good ... and will actively oppose a leader who is bad." Kellerman's book, Followership, expands on her taxonomy and argues that followers are increasingly vital, in part because organizational structures are flattening and it may be more difficult, at any given moment, to distinguish leaders from followers. She also argues, through stories from a range of contexts, for the power of followers to create real change.

Blogger Tim Spalding, in a relatively short post, offers a key distinction that may be helpful in interpreting Kellerman's apparent contradictions: "It is necessary to distinguish between followers and subordinates. Subordinates are in an inferior position in an hierarchy and are expected to obey commands from the person in the position of leader.... A follower, on the other hand, follows because they want to." Subordinates do what they're told; followers decide whether and how to do what they're told. Lone inventors may be, in Kellerman's terms, "isolates" who refuse to work with others, but a good leader can also engage them in the organization and harness their problem-solving and critical thinking skills while acknowledging their particular style of followership.

That distinction motivates Kelley's work, and it's clearly implicit in Kellerman's. It is also evident in taxonomies offered by Ira Chaleff, who categorized followers by the degree to which they challenged or supported leaders in his 1995 book, The Courageous Follower, last updated with the third edition in 2009. Chaleff's aim is to reimagine followership not as docility or weakness but as an act of courage. He urges followers to embrace active followership and resist groupthink and thoughtless conformity. Chaleff later edited an anthology on followership, The Art of Followership, that included 31 essays from a number of leaders in the field, including Kelley. The book offers a good introduction to the basic concepts of followership.

The key message of all this work is that followership, like leadership, is necessary. The world needs followers --active, engaged, courageous followers--every bit as much as it needs leaders, perhaps more. Good followers support their leaders, but they also push them, asking the questions that may lead to stronger decisions and calling out behavior they believe is unethical or dishonest. Indeed, as Chaleff and Kellerman suggest, sometimes being a good follower means refusing to follow--leaving or becoming a whistleblower rather than acceding to unacceptable behavior.

And like leadership, followership can be learned and taught. Just as leadership classes highlight the attributes of good leaders and suggest how those attributes might be strengthened or developed, followership training can help employees see how their strengths can be consciously deployed to support the leader and the organization. Clear, explicit discussions can help new entrants understand the difference between sheep-like subordinates and active followers. Kelley suggests that performance evaluations, which routinely include assessments of employees' leadership performance, should also explicitly include followership behaviors, encouraging everyone in the organization to focus on both sets of skills.

Most of us will move between followership and leadership, within a career and sometimes even within a work day. We're programmed, through education and culture, to strive for leadership. But we mustn't underestimate the power of conscious, engaged followership--to shape an organization and to change the world.

In this space, we offer a series of summaries on key topics, with pointers to important resources, to keep you informed of new developments and help you expand your repertoire of tools and ideas. We welcome your contributions, in the form of suggestions for topics and of column submissions.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2017.1325679



Ira Chaleff. 2009. The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Richard Dodge, Johanna Dwyer, Stewart Witzeman, Susan Neylon, and Sylvester Taylor. 2017. The role of leadership in innovation. Research-Technology Management 60(3): 22-28.

Lou Gritzo, Alan Fusfeld, and Daniel Carpenter. 2017. Exploring the principles of R&D leadership with award-winning R&D leaders. Research-Technology Management 60(3): 18-20.

Lou Gritzo, Alan Fusfeld, and Dan Carpenter. 2017. Success factors in R&D leadership: Leadership skills and attributes for R&D managers. Research-Technology Management 60(4): 43-52.

Barbara Kellerman. 2008. Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Robert E. Kelley. 1992. The Power of Followership. New York: Doubleday Business.

Ronald E. Reggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, eds. 2008. The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mary Uhl-Bien, Ronald E. Riggio, Kevin B. Lowe, and Melissa K. Carsten. 2014. Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly 25:83-104.


Raymond de Villiers. 2014. Followership: How to act the other 98% of the time, when we aren't leading. Tomorrowtoday Global, May 8. -leading/

Fast Company. 2005. Greatest business leaders of the 20th century. Fast Company, September 1.

Barbara Kellerman. 2007. What every leader needs to know about followers. Harvard Business Review 85(12): 84-91.

Robert Kelley. 1988. In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review 66(11): 142-148. https://hbr.Org/1988/11/in-praise-of-followers

Tim Spalding. 2012. Followership is as important as leadership! Knockalla Consulting, June 16.
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Title Annotation:RESOURCES
Author:Gobble, MaryAnne M.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Recommended readings
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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