In the December 2007 Harvard Business Review, Barbara Kellerman presented a typology to help discern between different followers in an organization. While a distinction is made that most studies are focused on leaders, I think we are really talking about the same thing here. What is important is how all of this plays in the realm of relationships within an organization.
The typology presented essentially divides followers by their level of engagement within an organization. It starts by distinguishing those who are not actively engaged, isolates and bystanders, separated by whether or not they are even aware of the environment around them. The remainder of the types are all active followers with differing degrees of participation, and passion that carries this engagement: participants, activists, and diehards. This is an interesting typology, to be sure, and thinking of ourselves and those around us, this facilitates our understanding of distinctions between different types of followers. I find that I have evolved over my career to be more engaged in my role as a follower (being a follower is not intrinsically bad in itself), and I would expect that most of you would see your own form of evolution as well.
While the article starts to make some distinctions between good and bad followers, invoking some of the traits of what we perceive as good leadership, I would take this even further, and add another perspective before we can really understand whether the situation can be judged as good or bad. To my mind, all of the traits that we would tend to use to describe a strong leader apply just as well to strong followers, and are independent of where we sit on an org chart or some other hierarchical relationship. Certainly, if many of these traits are tied intrinsically to personal values, and many people are simultaneously a leader to some while being a follower to others, then it seems to reason that we cannot easily swap these traits in or out as we wish. If we already behave in alignment with traits that make us effective leaders, we will already have the traits that make us effective followers, and vice versa. These are traits that are not the exclusive domain of one or the other group, they are traits that make us effective in any relationship we are in. If we carry these traits, if we are congruent in honestly behaving according to our stated (or implied) values, then we are on the right path. The importance of whether we are a leader or a follower in any given situation diminishes significantly, the playing field is leveled.
Which brings us to a very important element that helps us discern good vs. bad. Your perception of whether someone is an effective follower or leader is largely based on your perception of their behaviors, whether or not you believe they are acting in congruence. The challenge that we have is that quite often, values and goals are merely implied, not explicitly stated. If one person is in a leadership position but does not carry explicitly stated values or goals, we are left to interpret the situation (and their behaviors) in the context of our perceived understanding of what they stand for. If we don’t see alignment, this could be because the leader is not acting in congruence, or we are off the mark in guessing what is driving them, or both. In any case, we will be in a situation where we don’t see this person as an effective leader (or follower). After all, we usually go on the assumption that our guesses are right, don’t we?
If we don’t explicitly expose our goals and values, then, we run a high risk of being seen as ineffective. As a leader or as a follower. The team will break down. To avoid this, it is imperative for everyone on the team, leaders and followers (and quite often, you will bear both roles simultaneously), be explicit and open about the goals and values that are driving behaviors. This gives everyone the opportunity to judge these behaviors with the appropriate context - and trust me, you will still be judged even if you don’t provide this context. More importantly, it allows everyone to compare goals and values among the group to determine if there is enough alignment to move forward as a cohesive team.
The distinction between leaders and followers is less important now than it has ever been, particularly for knowledge workers where anyone in the organization may have the critical information to drive the team at any point in time. We all need to be actively engaged in a manner that is congruent with our goals and values, while ensuring this meshes with those around us. What is critical is the conscious and explicit expression of goals and values for everyone involved, the ongoing management of the evolution of this information, and the important discussions and decisions that will result.
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