On the value of followership

 Rather than frame followership as some form of weakness, we should celebrate it as an act of strong will, of high self-worth, of high ambition and as preparation for the leadership roles that await us.  Following well leads us to leadership.

There remains a significant gap between leadership theory and practice.  The foremost question to address is “why”?  Are existing leadership theories lacking?  Are practicing leaders failing to understand and lessons from leadership scholars?  I think both are true to some large extent.  Perhaps overlooked in all our focus on leaders is the critical role of the follower.

Ones identity as a “follower” is not a romantic one.  To prove this to yourself, imagine you are in the company of your colleagues at work and are asked to 1) raise your hand up high and 2) recite these 4 words…


I asked my students to do this in class, and then ask them to report how they felt about making this statement.  Without exception, their responses were negative.  The very word “follower” (outside the context of religious following) is one that conjures up feelings of weakness of will, low self-worth, a lack of ambition and feelings that we must lack important leader qualities.  It also implies, in our western society, that our career success will be limited as we have effectively “closed the door” on leadership positions in our future.  I’m here to say that this thinking is rubbish, and I’d like to use some logic to explain my position a bit further.

When I was an undergraduate, I needed 1 credit hour to satisfy a humanities requirement for my degree.  I had NO interest in any of the offerings, and logic was the only 1 credit hour course offered that I could take in my full-time schedule.  So, off to logic I went.  The teacher was good, the class was easy, but I didn’t have any idea what I was learning or how I might ever be able to apply it to my life.  Boy was I wrong.  This one class changed my world.  The experience changed my thinking and it sharpened my ability to discern from words what we could establish as truth, and quite importantly, what we could not!

Let me apply what I learned so many years ago to the following statements about leadership

1)     If you are a great leader then you have great followers. 

In logic, modus ponens (MP) is the proposition that “if A then B”.  And this, I believe, applies to leadership.  If a leader is great, they must have many great followers.  This is true because we define leadership as the perceptions that followers have of their leader.  All of the literature on transformational leadership points to a relationship where the leaders influence “transforms” followers through intellectual intercourse, emotional wooing and individualized consideration for each follower.  We call this assumption a partial (because not ALL followers of great leaders are GREAT followers) universal affirmative.

(see my earlier post on transformational leadership here)

So we have established MP (every great leader has some great followers) as a partial universal affirmative (truth) that we accept.  To validate this rule we must examine the proposition that “if not B, then not A” (this is called modus tollens (MT).  Here we need to determine if it is true that a leader (a) without great followers (-b) is not a great leader.  And the literature, again, supports this claim wholeheartedly.

This far we have simply demonstrated an inexplicable connection between great leaders and great followers based on what we know from the literature.  Great leaders have some great followers, else they are not great leaders.

However, what has not received attention is the proposition that

2)      If you are a great follower, then you have great leader(s)

And here, I propose, we are reaching deeply down toward the roots of our crisis in followership.  We have simply turned statement (1) on it’s head and stated the inverse here to apply our logic and determine the truth.  If we apply MP, we can unanimously agree that this statement is not true.  Many men and women serve as great followers of less-than-great leaders.  Moreover, when we apply MT (if not B then not A), we would have to conclude that if you do not have a great leader, you cannot be a great follower.  This clearly fails our test of logic and we must “denying the consequent” in logic jargon.

I labor here to recall my logic lessons and write such a lengthy post for you because I believe this is the fallacy that leads to mediocre organizational performance.  It is an “easy out” for people who don’t understand the true significance of followership.  Followership does not depend entirely upon leadership, it depends on character.  Perhaps you parents taught you lessons like “it’s not what you do when people are watching; rather it is what you do when they are not”.  Likewise, your quality of followership shines most brightly not under the direction of a great leader, but under the leadership of something much less.

Rather than frame followership as some form of weakness, we should celebrate it as an act of strong will, of high self-worth, of high ambition and as preparation for the leadership roles that await us.  Following well leads us to leadership.


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