The success of an organization is generally attributed to the effectiveness of leadership. And if we asked a few acquaintances, many would be able to explain what leadership is, not so much if we asked them what followership is. The reason for so much attention for those who “lead”, and little for those who “follow”, depends essentially on two factors: on the one hand, the reflection in the organizational context has placed the emphasis on leadership; on the other, it is society itself that is leader-centric: everyone wants to be recognized by others as the center or the summit of something. Thus the word leader arouses positive feelings, suggesting strength, prestige, and power. On the contrary, the word follower refers to obedience, to the mere execution of directives, to a substantially marginal role.
Followership is instead real life, made of relationships oriented to the construction of a project, to the achievement of a common goal. It is active support that requires commitment and energy. In short, the followership is far from marginal in production processes and in the efficiency of dynamics within an organization.
Central to all the “types” of followers is one element: the relational nature of the concepts of followership and leadership and their interdependence.
The motivations that push individuals to be followers are an important element to reflect on. It is precisely from these, in fact, that one’s style of followership and the quality of the contribution made take shape.
Fear of punishment: it is the motivation of those who “follow” the leader to preserve their position, or for fear of losing their job. At the base, there is the same type of response that derives from a coercive/authoritarian leadership. The followership that the leader obtains is not very active, immature and weak: it must be supported by the threat, it does not promote the employee’s sense of responsibility and self-efficacy, proactivity. Such a follower can stay in an organization for a long time without giving signs of growth, just as he can look for an alternative to the surveillance/threat climate.
Blind hope: it is the motivation of those who face a problem in the face of a fatalistic hope that the choice of leader is the right one. In addition to being a resource that does not actively live the company, it is not a good follower because it is ready to abandon the leader when it finds one that “gives him more hope”.
“Faith” in the leader: it is the motivation of those who follow and accept the solution proposed by the leader not because he shares it, but because he has unconditional trust in him. But be careful, this type of follower thinks that the leader is always able to bring out the “magical stroke of genius”. Sometimes, however, disappointment is inevitable; moreover, a leader is not infallible and it is healthy that he is not considered such for the well-being of the organization and of the leader himself.
Intellectual agreement: logic drives the motivation. Therefore he follows the leader as he evaluates and considers his choices rational. A common orientation for those who have a medium-high level of education and are used to wondering why things are.
Marrying the vision: it is the motivation of those who enthusiastically welcome an idea and identify with it. The focus of followership is the idea as a tool to achieve the organization’s goals, regardless of who proposed it and the logical arguments. Perfect, but functional for well-defined purposes and over short periods.
Robert E. Kelly proposes a useful description of the styles of followership starting from the attitudes of individuals in a position of follower with respect to two dimensions: the capacity for critical thinking and the passivity/activity of involvement. On the level of critical thinking ability, the best followers think for themselves, make constructive criticisms, are innovative and creative, while the worst must be told what to do, they are not autonomous, they do not think. On the level of active participation, however, the best followers take initiatives, take responsibility, go beyond what is required of them, while the worst are passive, require continuous supervision and are lazy.
The intersection of these dimensions reveals 5 follower profiles:
The “alienated”: is endowed with independent critical thinking, but is not active in carrying out his role and activity. He criticizes the leader’s efforts, is discontented and frustrated, has little enthusiasm, is focused on himself and often attacks others. It may have been an effective one but he became alienated from loss of motivation or from disappointment.
The conformist: he is actively involved in the work, but does not express independence of thought, adapting to the proposals of the leader and the dominant thought in the group. He has a strong sense of duty, wants to please the boss and avoids contrasts and conflicts.
The pragmatic: his followership style changes according to the situations. He does not take strong positions and avoids engaging more than required. He does not enjoy the trust of others and is an opportunist.
The passive: adapts to the directives given by the leader and carries out his duties without enthusiasm. It needs constant supervision and never goes beyond what is necessary.
The effective: it is active and equipped with critical thinking and sees the leader in a realistic way, aware of the strengths and weaknesses. He, therefore, builds a positive and constructive relationship with him and is a precious resource.
Can we say which of these is the best followership?
A univocal answer would make sense if the organizations were all the same: same objectives, same needs, internal dynamics and … same leaders! In reality, the mix of these variables makes each organization unique and unrepeatable, not suitable for pre-packaged solutions.
Assuming the knowledge of the variables mentioned above, the models help to identify the type of followership more quickly, or better yet, the blend of followers more functional to one’s reality. Furthermore, models can meet organizational needs in two macro-situations:
- the company must insert new members in harmony with the characteristics of the organization;
- the company already has a consolidated staff and aims to improve the efficiency and organizational effectiveness of historical members.
In the first case, the owner/leader will select and allocate new resources on the basis of the most functional characteristics for his organization and ideal blend. In the second, the owner/leader has chosen to undertake a path of improvement for his team starting from the reflection on his leadership style and on the followership styles present in the company and which he wishes to evolve.
We have said that perfect followership doesn’t exist. However, we can try to outline an ideal follower model, whose contribution can only be valuable and constructive in organizations characterized by a constant innovative drive, by offering an attractive and competitive service to the public, by attention to a delicate variable such as the relationship with the customer.
We are talking about the follower-collaborator with a strong self-awareness and self-efficacy, the one that combines technical skills with creativity and a high degree of commitment, the generous involvement that leads him to use his critical thinking to support the organization itself and the leader. It is precisely with generosity that he directs his support to customers, colleagues, and owner, without reservations or envy, with a proactive push towards the common goal and in line with the vision he has married. Sometimes it may seem uncomfortable, his behavior is far from reassuring (but of little effectiveness!) “yes men”, and this is because he has the courage to express his opinion, always in the appropriate times and ways, even when not aligned with the leader’s choices. A critical thought, his own, which begins with the analysis of one’s work and with the constant drive to improve.
This is a follower that every leader should choose and grow. With a little audacity, because the new leader is the one who encourages healthy dissent and values followers who have enough courage to say “no”.
In my opinion, the ideal follower is self-effective, courageous and generous. Yours?