For too long, leadership studies have been leader-centered. Early literatures on leadership have focussed on the traits, behaviors, and abilities of the leader to motivate and influence followers. Followers have always been considered as the recipient of leadership rather than as co-constructors. Consequently, many funding organizations have invested millions in research dollars to study leadership – the leadership industry is now $50 million. It is also common practice for business organizations to send their employees to leadership programs to develop their leadership skills in the hope that such persons would be more productive after attending such programs. However, these leadership programs have not yielded the desired outcome. One possible reason for this might be because an important variable in the leadership equation has been ignored for far too long – this variable is followership.
So why is followership important?
Firstly, followers are not passive in the leadership process, they are key actors and can help improve leadership outcomes. Followers can even make leaders better by active questioning and by thinking critically. An effective follower can hold a leader accountable, thereby making them take actions that they would otherwise not have taken.
The dynamics of power and deference is changing in our society. The growth of the information technology industry has resulted in followers looking to what used to be unlikely sources (such as Google, Wikipedia) for answers that they would otherwise have deferred to their leaders. This means that followers are now less dependent on leaders than they have ever been.
As the saying goes, “no man is an island”, the same is true about leadership. Leaders do not know everything and leaders might need to defer to followers specific tasks that followers have expertise in. Such interdependency between leaders and followers is what leadership really looks like in real life. Eco-leadership, a relatively new leadership approach, posits that anybody that possess the solution to a task should lead the team at such times.
Lastly, since we all are going to be followers than we are leaders in our lifetime, then it is important to study followership. Many of us go do not get the opportunity to lead, but we all have an opportunity to be effective followers – the type that makes leaders better, accountable, and successful.
How do I plan to use this in the future?
As someone interested in leadership research, this line of thinking has informed my research interest. I am interested in researching about the impact of followership on the outcome of leadership and the effective interactions between leaders and followers in the leadership process. Moreover, if followership is important, then we need to start teaching students about followership. Consequently, I hope to develop followership skills in my students.