Quality Leadership
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Followership: An Essential Element of Leadership

by Pat Townsend
and Joan Gebhardt

The phrase "too many chiefs and not enough Indians" needs no explanation, but in addition to its ethnic insensitivity, the statement also misses from a managerial standpoint. In organizations aspiring to growth and continual improvement, relationships are more complex and options more numerous than the either/or dictate implied by the notion of leaders and followers.

Virtually no one leads all of the time. Leaders also function as followers; everyone spends a portion of their day following and another portion leading. For example, a senior vice president may fill the role of powerful person when dealing with subordinates but not when dealing with the company president. In turn, a company president who refuses to respond to others will soon earn the ire of his or her board, or a legion of customers.

More illuminating is to consider the relationship between followership and leadership as two points on a continuum, anchored on one end by "passive followership" -- a phrase from Robert Kelley's book, The Power of Followership, and roughly equivalent to slug behavior -- and on the other by "capital-L leadership" -- a phrase from Five-Star Leadership and roughly equivalent to a prophetís charisma. In between, moving from passive followership to capital-L leadership, a person passes through "active followership" and "small-l leadership."

Most people spend their life moving back and forth between these latter two. Active followers and small-l leaders contribute a great deal to those occasions when everyone "just pitches in and gets it done." Thatís known as teamwork. At these times, leader and follower roles change so frequently they're not worth labeling. When properly prepared, people who donít normally consider themselves leaders will assume the role whenever their leadership skills are called for.

Unfortunately, most American businesses concentrate their training efforts (if they train for leadership) on capital-L leadership. It is, after all, the more exciting option, the sort of leadership exercised by women and men whose decision-making power has far-reaching impact, it is the stuff of which legends are made. Small-l leadership, on the other hand, involves decisions with immediate impact, usually on people known to the decision maker.

Neither forms of leadership operate in a vacuum. Habitual mistakes of capital-L leadership easily obliterate the bottom-line impact of small-l leadership decisions; lackadaisical acts of small-l leadership can easily nullify capital-L leadership decisions. Any leadership curriculum that glosses over small-l leadership creates a void. So, too, curriculums that overlook followership. If a person has not been trained, formally or informally, to fill the follower role, the odds are significantly lower that he or she will ever reach his or her leadership potential.

A look at an article written by Sgt. 1st Class Michael T. Woodward for the U.S. Army's Infantry magazine in mid-1975 suggests the scope of a followership course. Woodward points out that followers need to commit to the organizationís mission, which in turn requires that they understand the mission and concur with its aims. This simple idea is, of course, a major stumbling block in organizations that demand blind obedience from lower-level employees. In fact, creating an environment in which employees become active, committed followers requires real effort on all sides and more than a modicum of trust. Woodward's goal is to create competent followers able to estimate the proper action required to contribute to mission performance and, in the absence of orders, to take that action.

Woodward includes 10 guidelines for followers in his article. He uses the U.S. Army's leadership principles as a point of reference, and the list reflects how close active followership is to small-l leadership:


1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement.

2. Be technically and tactically proficient.

3. Comply with orders and initiate appropriate actions in the absence of orders.

4. Develop a sense of responsibility, and take responsibility for your actions.

5. Make sound and timely decisions and recommendations.

6. Set the example for others.

7. Be familiar with your leader and his job, and anticipate his requirements.

8. Keep your leaders informed.

9. Understand the task and ethically accomplish it.

10. Be a team member -- but not a yes man.


"Effective leadership requires followers who are more than Pavlovian reactors to their leaders' influences," notes Woodward. "When followers actively contribute, are aware of their function and take personal pride in the art of followership, then the joint purpose of leadership and followership -- higher levels of mission accomplishment -- is achieved effectively. Professionalism in followership is as important in the military service as professionalism in leadership."

Educating people to help them become productive followers and leaders is an important leadership responsibility. Any thoughtful leader has three top priorities:

*Accomplish the mission.

*Take care of your people.

*Create more leaders.


An organizationís senior management must be willing not only to invest money and resources, but also take part in discussions and lead by example. They must come to grips with the continuum from followership to leadership, rather than present the two as opposing concepts across a yawning gap. Otherwise, folks caught on the chasmís followership side will show no ambition to become leaders. The distance will prove too great for all but the greatest leaps of faith.


About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997).

Please write to us at  ptownsend@qualitydigest.com. We look forward to hearing from you.


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