What is Followership and why should we care?

March 17th, 2016

followership example

Leadership is co-produced!

By Debra Finlayson, Followership Consultant

Are ineffective followers actually responsible for World War II?

Ira Chaleff, author of ‘The Courageous Follower”, opined in his classic book on Followership “If we’d had effective followers surrounding Hitler, he would not have risen to power”. And while you or I may have lessor challenges than preventing the rise of the Third Reich, the success of our organizations is still impacted not just by the quality of our leaders, but by the quality of our followers, and not just any followers.  It turns out that the type of people who could have prevented Hitler’s rise to power are the same type of people who hold the potential to unleash huge gains in productivity for your organization. They’re called “Exemplary Followers” and knowing they exist brings you half-way toward harnessing their power for positive change.

In today’s business environment, we’re captivated with the idea of leadership. This is partially because of the dominance leadership has had within organizational performance theory over the last few decades and partially because of a growing leadership crisis.  Middle managers are being phased out to achieve flatter organizations and senior executives are now leaving to enjoy their long awaited retirements. We therefore invest in leadership training to address the looming leadership gap. Whether we are in large organizations or smaller businesses, it’s apparent this leadership shortfall is here to stay. We are evermore challenged to find new innovative ways to keep companies competitive in this fast paced global economy. Today, it is not only about engaging our millennial workers; we must empower them.

If we examine the leadership process more closely, most of us lead and follow at different times or during different situations in our working lives, at home or in the community, and, most would admit, we do this without having been formally trained in how to follow others effectively.

If Hitler’s followers are an example of bad followers, examples of effective followers include Aristotle, Carl Jung and Ellen Gates. All these people are powerful individuals known to have changed history. In the ‘Power of Followership’ Robert Kelley presents ‘Follower Types’ and claims of these, the Exemplary (Effective) Followers (EF’s) hold key importance for the success of leaders and organizations. Among their many qualities, EF’s offer to help the leader and organization improve and when training people to become EF’s this can result in some of them becoming effective leaders themselves.

Still today we ‘struggle’ with stigma when it comes to the term ‘followers’. When I talk to individuals about my research on followership it is often followed by the same question, “Do they have a better term for ‘Followership’ yet?” No I am afraid not! My guess is anyone reading this article feels reserved about the word too. After all synonyms for follower include: supporter, fan, admirer, hanger-on, devotee, disciple or adherent. None of these words have inspiring connotations. In fact, they bring to mind characteristics of: weak, passive, uninvolved. Yet, we are followers far more often than we are leaders, and the reality is, we live in a culture that simply does not promote Followership value. This limited perception holds us back from moving toward practical and productive transformation for the entire organization.

Organizations can ignite followership by enhancing their employee’s capability in knowing what to do without being told – acting with intelligence, independence, courage, and a strong sense of ethics; these are the invaluable skills of EF’s. As well, when igniting followership within an organization you will be able to identify future leaders within the followership.  This in turn enables succession planning and further helps your leaders to succeed through strong followership support.



debraBlack Suit (3)Debra Finlayson is a published expert on the emerging field of Followership, which takes a holistic look at how leaders and followers can propel an organization’s productivity to new heights. If this topic interests you, you can see Debra Finlayson and Sandra Reder in action at the HRMA Conference & Trade Show in a session called “WHY LEADERS FAIL: Igniting Followership – The Untapped Organizational Resource”. 

Debra Finlayson MA, CHRP is a human resources consultant specializing in organizational development at Vertical Bridge Corporate Consulting. She is a former Manager of Member Relations for the Human Resources Management Association overseeing Greater Vancouver and Fraser Valley. She is known as a diplomatic change leader and has provided HR and Business services to small, medium and large profit and not-for profit organizations. Debra has completed a BBA in Entrepreneurial Leadership and, with a people-focused approach and an enthusiasm for Human Resources, she acquired her Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation, an HR Management Post Baccalaureate Diploma and an MA in Leadership and Change from Exeter University, UK in 2014.

She is an academic co-author with a case study in a book being launched in March 2016 titled Followership In Action: Cases and Commentaries with Emerald Group Publishing. Her case study is titled ‘the Importance of Followership & Reputation in an HR Consulting Firm’. Debra will focus her PhD on advancing research into and understanding of the cultural and global impacts of Followership. She currently serves as the Chair of the Human Resources Advocacy Committee for the Surrey Board of Trade.

One Response to “What is Followership and why should we care?”

  1. adrian mcginn says:

    Delighted to see more focus and expertise around the critical area of Followership and there is also a Group called Followership on Linkedin which generates more discussion and debate.