Time to Rethink Followership!

Let’s Rethink the Idea of Followership!

It is time to rethink the idea of followership. I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers spoke glowingly about the need to develop “followership.” Her logic was impeccable. Give the workforce reasons to enjoy following their leaders. Really? Give the employees reasons to enjoy being followers? There are over half a billion profiles on LinkedIn. I am confident that not one individual has placed in their profile that they are a dynamic, bold, and fearless “follower” looking for a leader. Furthermore, for those listening, millennials are not interested in being anyone’s “follower.” Nor should they.

The Idea of Leaders and Followers – the Origins

Aristotle was probably the first who observed that excellent leadership was rare but focused on “practical wisdom.” This wisdom was not about science, truth, or how things worked. It was about “how things can be other than they are.” As James O’Toole notes, “it is relating to what is right and wrong for a group, or society as a whole.”

At Some Level, Everyone is a Follower

However, discussion and research into followership did not begin until the 21st Century. The research points out that effective followers are not passive bystanders. They are not robots who obediently and execute the orders of their leaders. It also points out that at some point, every leader is a follower. For example, the CEO is subordinate to the Board of Directors. Even the President of a democratic republic service at the pleasure of the public. Aristotle observed this reality and concluded that to be a great leader, one must first be a great follower. He had observed that when leaders are first followers, they will better understand their subordinates’ needs. Understanding the needs of followers or subordinates allows the leader to be more effective in motivating the team.

Other Origins of Followership

Historically, leaders have risen to prominence by either pure power or natural birth order. Those who rise to national prominence have often used a divine mandate to establish their right to rule. The Pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of Greece and Roma all connected themselves to gods. This sacred relationship gave them unquestioned authority. Western kings have used this same power to establish unquestionable authority. They maintain that because God chose them, their will was, therefore, God’s will. To disobey the king was the equivalent of disobeying God. These kinds of relations tend to trickle down to the general nobility. Being born into a noble family gave them the right to rule based on divine birthright.

This sense of divine order just split the world into two parts—leaders who attained their position through either sheer power or the social order and everyone else. Leaders, because of their closer relationship to God, were superior. All others were lessor beings needing to be followers of rules and those who set them. I’m afraid not much has changed.

A Personal Story

For several years I served on the Board of Directors for a small but growing faith-based nonprofit. On several occasions, he made it clear to the Board that since he was the founder and President we could not question his vision. Since the vision had come from God directly, we were not to question the direction he wanted to take the organization. This made it hard, if not impossible to execute the responsibilities of an independent board. Several board members felt that he owned the vision of the organization. Therefore we could not question him or that vision.

Those Who Demand Their Authority are Usually the Least Likely to Share Its Power

Of course, he fought the reigns and legal requirements of a Board of Directors. Yet, at the same time, he was first to require each subordinate to honor his authority by unquestioning obedience. I was the Board Chair when he did finally resign out of pure frustration. My only regret was not asking for his resignation sooner. By unchaining ourselves from the limits of his personal vision, we could develop a broader vision that could be shared. Today, that organization is one of the most innovative and influential in its marketplace.

Re-Thinking Followership

Today, we enjoy the most highly educated workforce in humanity’s history. Nearly 40% of all millennials have some college experience. This is an all-time high. Furthermore, they believe in the power of their own intellect to question established norms and make an impact. They are on record that they don’t think they need to be a loyal follower. They see no need to quietly wait their turn at organizational leadership. Millennials fully expect their voices to be valued and respected-now. Consequently, if they are not respected, they just find a new job. This is one reason why six out of ten millennials are looking for a new job.

Millennials Deserve More Respect

The concept of follower has always meant to indicate a subordinate. However, the reality is that it also meant someone of lesser talent, intellect, or skill set. Today’s millennials and the following generations are often as smart, if not smarter, than their boomer parents and grandparents. They are usually better educated with a broader perspective on the world. For example, by the time my son graduated from high school, he had already traveled in Europe and was part of two teams building homes in Mexico. By the time he was twenty-five, he had traveled by himself to Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Austria, and Greece. There is no reason why he should ever consider himself a lesser human being.

The Nonsense of Followership Literature

In 1988 the Harvard Business Review published an article titled, In Praise of Followers. In it, the author states, “What distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant participation—without star billing—in the pursuit of an organizational goal.” Today, I think we would recognize these employees as “actively engaged.” But a follower? I think the term is rude and demeaning.

There is a park adjacent to my back yard. Not long ago, the football coach of 8-10-year-old boys was admonishing them during a fitness drill. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he bellowed. “Leaders and followers. Who are my leaders?” In spite of the fact that his own girth reflected a steady diet of pizza and beer, he was making an observation that faster boys were the leaders and slower boys were the followers. Why would anybody ever consent to be a good follower? it is like giving every student an award so no one feels left out.

Ivey Business Journal: Followership, the Other Side of Leadership

In 2013, this prestigious business journal published a similar article to the one in the Harvard Business Review. Both articles spilt the world into two kinds of people – leaders and followers. The state, “The flip side of leadership is followership.” While I think they are wrong, they also recognize the demeaning thinking about followers. They again state, “The label “excellent follower” can be a backhanded compliment.” The author also accurately notes, that MBA programs never market their ability to teach effective followership, “Get your MBA at our university; we teach followership better than anyone else; become a better sheep at our university.” Of course, this is an interesting observation because there is not a shred of evidence that lecture-based programs teach leaders how to effectively lead.

This splitting the human being into superior beings (leaders) and sub human beings (followers) is just disgusting. It may have been an accurate statement when only leaders were educated, but this is not the first century in Rome.

Abandoning the Follow the Leader – The USS Santa Fe and Captain David Marquet

Rethinking Followership

In his book, Turn the Ship Around, Captain David Marquet tells the story of taking over command of the USS Santa Fee. A nuclear-powered attack submarine. During the first training exercise, he rudely discovered that the Navy had trained him in a leadership system that would not work. It was based on the outdated model that there are leaders and there are followers. Leaders, based on their superior position, education, or birthright, tell followers what to do. He describes the impact of this model. “Psychologically for the leader, this is tremendously rewarding. It is seductive. Psychologically for most followers, this is debilitating.”

A Hard Lesson in Leadership vs Followership

Captain Marquet’s lesson came during the ship’s first training exercise after he became the captain. He gave a command, “head two-thirds,” to a subordinate. The subordinate repeated the command to his subordinate. Except this ship could not move ahead at two-thirds. The Navy had not designed it with a variable speed electric motor. It was either all on or all off. His inexperience with this specific submarine meant that he could not just give orders and expect the crew to carry them out blindly. The crew knew more about how the USS Santa Fe operated than he did.

In response, he had to rethink and redesign a new system of leadership. It was a system that abolished the traditional follow the leader model. Instead, he designed a new leadership system that respected the intelligence, commitment, and passion of his crew. He had to find ways that empowered them individually and collectively to improve the performance of the ship. In two years, this new leadership system turned the submarine from the lowest-performing ship in the fleet to the highest performance the Navy had ever seen.

The Solution? Replace Followership with Empowerment

It is not just semantics. The follower might be just another name for a subordinate. However, words and language matter. Referring to a subordinate as a “follower” is demeaning. To be called a “follower” means you and I do not have what it takes to be a leader. As Captain Marquet points out, it is “debilitating” to the subordinate. It also retains power in the hands of a few. Empowerment distributes power, but the result is more power for high-impact performance.

Definition of Empowerment

Employee empowerment is defined as the ways in which organizations provide their employees with a certain degree of autonomy and control in their day-to-day activities. This can include having a voice in process improvement, helping to create and manage new systems and tactics, and running smaller departments with less oversight from higher-level management. Source: ASQ.org

Dispersing the Power of the Leader

In my research for Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance, I observed this same leader-subordinate power relationship. When leaders distributed their power, they created more power to fuel performance. I observed this distribution of power in manufacturing, education, healthcare, and even the US Army. During a conversation with retired 4-Star General Barry McCaffrey, he explained the Army’s rule about who holds the power of a military mission. It is the officer on the ground engaging the enemy. He told me that he had been in the Situation Room several times, watching a mission unfold through the magic of satellite communications. “we had virtually as much information of what was happening as the commander.” However, the rule is that the officer closest to the mission holds the power to determine what needs to be done. He went on to explained to me that if the Army wanted to screw up the culture of the Army, just take this power away from the soldier on the ground, (actually he language became very colorful).

Five Ways to Turn a System of Followership into a System of Empowerment

Time needed: 5 minutes.

Five Ways to Turn Culture of Followership Into a Culture of Empowered Employees

  1. Be intentional

    Power has a way of captivating us all. As the old saying goes, “absolute power will corrupt absolutely.” Therefore, sharing power will require intentionality.

  2. Design and train leaders

    Sharing power may not be something that everyone wants to give up. Therefore, the development of new leaders requires them to lean both the why of distributing power but the methods as well. From my research, the responsibility of empowering employees lies with the leader. Too many put the responsibility on the worker.

  3. Design rules about distributing power

    Rules have power over the system. However, it is not only just the rules, but who makes them. Rules like who is responsible for solving problems? There is common knowledge that problem solving is best done at the lowest level possible. Unfortunately, this is a knowledge based that is seldom institutionalized.

  4. Train and develop employees

    Many employees are surprised with distributed power. They are use to getting permission from their supervisor to initiate problem solving. Therefore, they need to be trained in their boundaries, the responsibility that comes with distributed power.

  5. Measure it

    In reality, the measurement of power distribution is a measurement of leadership. Or more precisely, the leadership system. A highly engaged workforce will naturally share more power. So the engagement levels of the workforce is a good place to begin.


Today’s workforce is smarter, better educated, and often understand the world better than their boomer parents and grandparents. A follower is not a term they will ever apply to themselves, nor should they. Therefore, the time is now to rethink the idea of followership and replace it with the idea of empowerment. An empowered employee is always going to contribute more than one passively waiting around waiting to be told what to do. While some may suggest it is just semantics, words matter. Calling subordinates “followers” because they have not yet attained a place of organizational power is rude and demeaning. Millennials especially find this disgusting. They have been told since they were babies that they are “special” and can accomplish anything they set their minds to accomplish. I know, I raised one. Therefore, let’s focus on dispersing organizational power and designing the systems of leadership to do this effectively.

About the Author

author, speaker, consultant

Daniel Edds, MBA is the author of Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance. This is the first book of its kind that describes in simple and easy to understand case studies and stories how high impact organizations are recreating the world of work and leadership.