In Praise of Followersby Robert E. KelleyReprint 88606Harvard Business ReviewWe are convinced that corporations succeed orfail, compete or crumble, on the basis of how wellthey are led. So we study great leaders of the pastand present and spend vast quantities of time andmoney looking for leaders to hire and trying to cultivate leadership in the employees we already have.I have no argument with this enthusiasm. Leaders matter greatly. But in searching so zealously forbetter leaders we tend to lose sight of the peoplethese leaders will lead. Without his armies, afterall, Napoleon was just a man with grandiose ambitions. Organizations stand or fall partly on the basisof how well their leaders lead, but partly also on thebasis of how well their followers follow.In 1987, declining profitability and intensifiedcompetition for corporate clients forced a largecommercial bank on the east coast to reorganize itsoperations and cut its work force. Its most seasoned managers had to spend most of their time inthe field working with corporate customers. Timeand energies were stretched so thin that one department head decided he had no choice but to delegate the responsibility for reorganization to hisstaff people, who had recently had training in selfmanagement.Despite grave doubts, the department head setthem up as a unit without a leader, responsible toone another and to the bank as a whole for writingtheir own job descriptions, designing a training program, determining criteria for performance evaluations, planning for operational needs, and helpingto achieve overall organizational objectives.They pulled it off. The bank’s officers were delighted and frankly amazed that rank-and-file employees could assume so much responsibility sosuccessfully. In fact, the department’s capacity tocontrol and direct itself virtually without leadership saved the organization months of turmoil, andCopyright © 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988Robert E. Kelley teaches at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie Mellon University.He is the author of Gold-Collar Worker: Harnessing theBrainpower of the New Work Force (Addison-Wesley,1985) and Consulting: The Complete Guide to a Profitable Career (Scribner, rev. ed., 1986). The material inthis article is drawn from a book in progress, Followership–Leadership–Partnership. This is his second articlefor HBR.Not all corporate success is due to leadership…In Praise of Followersby Robert E. Kelleyas the bank struggled to remain a major player in itsregion, valuable management time was freed up toput out other fires.What was it these singular employees did? Givena goal and parameters, they went where most departments could only have gone under the handson guidance of an effective leader. But these employees accepted the delegation of authority andwent there alone. They thought for themselves,sharpened their skills, focused their efforts, put on afine display of grit and spunk and self-control. Theyfollowed effectively.To encourage this kind of effective following inother organizations, we need to understand the nature of the follower’s role. To cultivate good followers, we need to understand the human qualitiesthat allow effective followership to occur.The Role of FollowerBosses are not necessarily good leaders; subordinates are not necessarily effective followers. Manybosses couldn’t lead a horse to water. Many subordinates couldn’t follow a parade. Some people avoideither role. Others accept the role thrust upon themand perform it badly.At different points in their careers, even at different times of the working day, most managers playboth roles, though seldom equally well. After all,the leadership role has the glamour and attention.We take courses to learn it, and when we play itwell we get applause and recognition. But the reality is that most of us are more often followers thanleaders. Even when we have subordinates, we stillhave bosses. For every committee we chair, we sitas a member on several others.So followership dominates our lives and organizations, but not our thinking, because our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and the importance of the follower.What distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and selfreliant participation – without star billing – in thepursuit of an organizational goal. Effective followers differ in their motivations for following and intheir perceptions of the role. Some choose followership as their primary role at work and serve as teamplayers who take satisfaction in helping to further acause, an idea, a product, a service, or, more rarely, aperson. Others are leaders in some situations butchoose the follower role in a particular context.Both these groups view the role of follower as legitimate, inherently valuable, even virtuous.Some potentially effective followers derive motivation from ambition. By proving themselves in thefollower’s role, they hope to win the confidence ofpeers and superiors and move up the corporate ladder. These people do not see followership as attractive in itself. All the same, they can become goodfollowers if they accept the value of learning therole, studying leaders from a subordinate’s perspective, and polishing the followership skills that willalways stand them in good stead.Understanding motivations and perceptions isnot enough, however. Since followers with differentmotivations can perform equally well, I examinedthe behavior that leads to effective and less effectivefollowing among people committed to the organization and came up with two underlying behavioraldimensions that help to explain the difference.One dimension measures to what degree followers exercise independent, critical thinking. The other ranks them on a passive/active scale. The resulting diagram identifies five followership patterns.Sheep are passive and uncritical, lacking in initiative and sense of responsibility. They perform thetasks given them and stop. Yes People are a livelierbut equally unenterprising group. Dependent on aleader for inspiration, they can be aggressively deferential, even servile. Bosses weak in judgment andself-confidence tend to like them and to form alliances with them that can stultify the organization.Alienated Followers are critical and independentin their thinking but passive in carrying out theirrole. Somehow, sometime, something turned themoff. Often cynical, they tend to sink gradually intodisgruntled acquiescence, seldom openly opposinga leader’s efforts. In the very center of the diagramwe have Survivors, who perpetually sample thewind and live by the slogan “better safe than sorry.”They are adept at surviving change.In the upper right-hand corner, finally, we haveEffective Followers, who think for themselves andDRAWINGS BY MICHAEL WITTE 3carry out their duties and assignments with energyand assertiveness. Because they are risk takers, selfstarters, and independent problem solvers, they getconsistently high ratings from peers and many superiors. Followership of this kind can be a positiveand acceptable choice for parts or all of our lives – asource of pride and fulfillment.Effective followers are well-balanced and responsible adults who can succeed without strong leadership. Many followers believe they offer as muchvalue to the organization as leaders do, especially inproject or task-force situations. In an organizationof effective followers, a leader tends to be more anoverseer of change and progress than a hero. As organizational structures flatten, the quality of thosewho follow will become more and more important.As Chester I. Barnard wrote 50 years ago in TheFunctions of the Executive, “The decision as towhether an order has authority or not lies with theperson to whom it is addressed, and does not residein ‘persons of authority’ or those who issue orders.”The Qualities of FollowersEffective followers share a number of essentialqualities:1. They manage themselves well.2. They are committed to the organization and toa purpose, principle, or person outside themselves.3. They build their competence and focus theirefforts for maximum impact.4. They are courageous, honest, and credible.Self-Management. Paradoxically, the key to beingan effective follower is the ability to think for oneself – to exercise control and independence and towork without close supervision. Good followers arepeople to whom a leader can safely delegate responsibility, people who anticipate needs at their ownlevel of competence and authority.Another aspect of this paradox isthat effective followers see themselves – except in terms of line responsibility – as the equals of theleaders they follow. They are moreapt to openly and unapologeticallydisagree with leadership and lesslikely to be intimidated by hierarchyand organizational structure. At the same time,they can see that the people they follow are, in turn,following the lead of others, and they try to appreciate the goals and needs of the team and the organization. Ineffective followers, on the other hand, buyinto the hierarchy and, seeing themselves as subservient, vacillate between despair over their seeming powerlessness and attempts to manipulate leaders for their own purposes. Either their fear of powerlessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – forthemselves and often for their work units as well –or their resentment leads them to undermine theteam’s goals.Self-managed followers give their organizations asignificant cost advantage because they eliminatemuch of the need for elaborate supervisory controlsystems that, in any case, often lower morale. In1985, a large midwestern bank redesigned its personnel selection system to attract self-managed workers. Those conducting interviews began to look forparticular types of experience and capacities – initiative, teamwork, independent thinking of all kinds –and the bank revamped its orientation program toemphasize self-management. At the executive level,role playing was introduced into the interview process: how you disagree with your boss, how you prioritize your in-basket after a vacation. In the threeyears since, employee turnover has dropped dramatically, the need for supervisors has decreased, andadministrative costs have gone down.Of course not all leaders and managers like having self-managing subordinates. Some would ratherhave sheep or yes people. The best that good followers can do in this situation is to protect themselveswith a little career self-management – that is, tostay attractive in the marketplace. The qualitiesthat make a good follower are too much in demandto go begging for long.Commitment. Effective followers are committedto something – a cause, a product, an organization,an idea – in addition to the care of their own livesand careers. Some leaders misinterpret this commitment. Seeing their authority acknowledged,they mistake loyalty to a goal for loyalty to themselves. But the fact is that many effective followerssee leaders merely as coadventurers on a worthycrusade, and if they suspect their leader of flaggingcommitment or conflicting motives they may justwithdraw their support, either by changing jobs orby contriving to change leaders.The opportunities and the dangers posed by thiskind of commitment are not hard to see. On the oneFOLLOWERS4 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988Self-confident followerssee colleagues as allies andleaders as equals.hand, commitment is contagious. Most people likeworking with colleagues whose hearts are in theirwork. Morale stays high. Workers who begin towander from their purpose are jostled back intoline. Projects stay on track and on time. In addition,an appreciation of commitment and the way itworks can give managers an extra tool with whichto understand and channel the energies and loyalties of their subordinates.On the other hand, followers who are stronglycommitted to goals not consistent with the goals oftheir companies can produce destructive results.Leaders having such followers can even lose controlof their organizations.A scientist at a computer company cared deeplyabout making computer technology available to themasses, and her work was outstanding. Since hergoal was in line with the company’s goals, she hadfew problems with top management. Yet she sawher department leaders essentially as facilitators ofher dream, and when managers worked at crosspurposes to that vision, she exercised all of her considerable political skills to their detriment. Her immediate supervisors saw her as a thorn in the side,but she was quite effective in furthering her causebecause she saw eye to eye withcompany leaders. But what if hervision and the company’s visionhad differed?Effective followers temper theirloyalties to satisfy organizationalneeds – or they find new organizations. Effective leaders know howto channel the energies of strongcommitment in ways that willsatisfy corporate goals as well as afollower’s personal needs.Competence and Focus. On thegrounds that committed incompetence is still incompetence, effective followers master skills thatwill be useful to their organizations. They generally hold higherperformance standards than thework environment requires, andcontinuing education is secondnature to them, a staple in theirprofessional development.Less effective followers expecttraining and development to cometo them. The only education theyacquire is force-fed. If not sent to aseminar, they don’t go. Their competence deteriorates unless someleader gives them parental care and attention.Good followers take on extra work gladly, butfirst they do a superb job on their core responsibilities. They are good judges of their own strengthsand weaknesses, and they contribute well to teams.Asked to perform in areas where they are poorlyqualified, they speak up. Like athletes stretchingtheir capacities, they don’t mind chancing failure ifthey know they can succeed, but they are careful tospare the company wasted energy, lost time, andpoor performance by accepting challenges thatcoworkers are better prepared to meet. Good followers see coworkers as colleagues rather thancompetitors.At the same time, effective followers oftensearch for overlooked problems. A woman on anew product development team discovered thatno one was responsible for coordinating engineering, marketing, and manufacturing. She workedout an interdepartmental review schedule thatidentified the people who should be involved ateach stage of development. Instead of burdeningher boss with yet another problem, this womantook the initiative to present the issue along witha solution.HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988 5Some Followers Are More EffectiveIndependent, Critical ThinkingDependent, Uncritical ThinkingActivePassiveEffectiveFollowersSurvivorsSheep Yes PeopleAlienatedFollowersAnother woman I interviewed described her efforts to fill a dangerous void in the company shecared about. Young managerial talent in this manufacturing corporation had traditionally made careers in production. Convinced that foreign competition would alter the shape of the industry, sherealized that marketing was a neglected area. Shetook classes, attended seminars, and read widely.More important, she visited customers to get feedback about her company’s and competitors’ products, and she soon knew more about the product’scustomer appeal and market position than any ofher peers. The extra competence did wonders forher own career, but it also helped her companyweather a storm it had not seen coming.Courage. Effective followers are credible, honest,and courageous. They establish themselves as independent, critical thinkers whose knowledge andjudgment can be trusted. They give credit wherecredit is due, admitting mistakes and sharing successes. They form their own views and ethical standards and stand up for what they believe in.Insightful, candid, and fearless, they can keep leaders and colleagues honest and informed. The otherside of the coin of course is that they can also causegreat trouble for a leader with questionable ethics.Jerome LiCari, the former R&D director at BeechNut, suspected for several years that the apple concentrate Beech-Nut was buying from a new supplierat 20% below market price was adulterated. Hisdepartment suggested switching suppliers, but topmanagement at the financially strapped companyput the burden of proof on R&D.By 1981, LiCari had accumulated strong evidenceof adulteration and issued a memo recommendinga change of supplier. When he got no response, hewent to see his boss, the head of operations. According to LiCari, he was threatened with dismissalfor lack of team spirit. LiCari then went to the president of Beech-Nut, and when that, too, producedno results, he gave up his three-year good-soldiereffort, followed his conscience, and resigned. Hislast performance evaluation praised his expertiseand loyalty, but said his judgment was “colored bynaiveté and impractical ideals.”In 1986, Beech-Nut and LiCari’s two bosses wereindicted on several hundred counts of conspiracy tocommit fraud by distributing adulterated applejuice. In November 1987, the company pleadedguilty and agreed to a fine of $2 million. In Februaryof this year, the two executives were found guiltyon a majority of the charges. The episode costBeech-Nut an estimated $25 million and a 20% lossof market share. Asked during the trial if he hadbeen naive, LiCari said, “I guess I was. I thoughtapple juice should be made from apples.”Is LiCari a good follower? Well, no, not to his dishonest bosses. But yes, he is almost certainly thekind of employee most companies want to have:loyal, honest, candid with his superiors, and thoroughly credible. In an ethical company involvedunintentionally in questionable practices, this kindof follower can head off embarrassment, expense,and litigation.Cultivating Effective FollowersYou may have noticed by now that the qualitiesthat make effective followers are, confusinglyenough, pretty much the same qualities found insome effective leaders. This is no mere coincidence, of course. But the confusion underscores animportant point. If a person has initiative, self-control, commitment, talent, honesty, credibility, andcourage, we say, “Here is a leader!” By definition, afollower cannot exhibit the qualities of leadership.It violates our stereotype.But our stereotype is ungenerous and wrong. Followership is not a person but a role, and what distinguishes followers from leaders is not intelligence or character but the role they play. As Ipointed out at the beginning of thisarticle, effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts at different hours of the day.In many companies, the leadershiptrack is the only road to career success. In almost all companies, leadership is taught and encouraged whilefollowership is not. Yet effective followership is aprerequisite for organizational success. Your organization can take four steps to cultivate effectivefollowers in your work force.1. Redefining Followership and Leadership. Ourstereotyped but unarticulated definitions of leadership and followership shape our expectations whenwe occupy either position. If a leader is defined as responsible for motivating followers, he or she willFOLLOWERS6 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988Courageous followerscan keep a leader honest –and out of trouble.likely act toward followers as if they needed motivation. If we agree that a leader’s job is to transformfollowers, then it must be a follower’s job to providethe clay. If followers fail to need transformation, theleader looks ineffective. The way we define the rolesclearly influences the outcome of the interaction.Instead of seeing the leadership role as superior toand more active than the role of the follower, wecan think of them as equal but different activities.The operative definitions are roughly these: peoplewho are effective in the leader role have the visionto set corporate goals and strategies, the interpersonal skills to achieve consensus, the verbal capacity to communicate enthusiasm to large and diversegroups of individuals, the organizational talent tocoordinate disparate efforts, and, above all, the desire to lead.People who are effective in the follower role havethe vision to see both the forest and the trees, thesocial capacity to work well with others, thestrength of character to flourish without heroic status, the moral and psychological balance to pursuepersonal and corporate goals at no cost to either,and, above all, the desire to participate in a team effort for the accomplishment of some greater common purpose.This view of leadership and followership can beconveyed to employees directly and indirectly – intraining and by example. The qualities that makegood followers and the value the company places oneffective followership can be articulated in explicitfollower training. Perhaps the best way to conveythis message, however, is by example. Since each ofus plays a follower’s part at least from time to time,it is essential that we play it well, that we contribute our competence to the achievement of teamgoals, that we support the team leader with candorand self-control, that we do our best to appreciateand enjoy the role of quiet contribution to a larger,common cause.2. Honing Followership Skills. Most organizations assume that leadership has to be taught butthat everyone knows how to follow. This assumption is based on three faulty premises: (1) that leaders are more important than followers, (2) that following is simply doing what you are told todo, and (3) that followers inevitably drawtheir energy and aims, even their talent,from the leader. A program of followertraining can correct this misapprehensionby focusing on topics like:Improving independent, critical thinking.Self-management.Disagreeing agreeably.Building credibility.Aligning personal and organizationalgoals and commitments.Acting responsibly toward the organization, the leader, coworkers, and oneself.Similarities and differences betweenleadership and followership roles.Moving between the two roles with ease.3. Performance Evaluation and Feedback. Most performance evaluations include a section on leadership skills. Followership evaluation would include itemslike the ones I have discussed. Instead ofrating employees on leadership qualitiessuch as self-management, independentthinking, originality, courage, competence, and credibility, we can rate them onthese same qualities in both the leadershipand followership roles and then evaluateeach individual’s ability to shift easilyfrom the one role to the other. A variety ofperformance perspectives will help mostHARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988 7people understand better how well they play theirvarious organizational roles.Moreover, evaluations can come from peers, subordinates, and self as well as from supervisors. Theprocess is simple enough: peers and subordinateswho come into regular or significant contact withanother employee fill in brief, periodic questionnaires where they rate the individual on followership qualities. Findings are then summarized andgiven to the employee being rated.4. Organizational Structures That EncourageFollowership. Unless the value of good following issomehow built into the fabric of the organization,it is likely to remain a pleasant conceit to whicheveryone pays occasional lip service but no dues.Here are four good ways to incorporate the conceptinto your corporate culture: In leaderless groups, all members assume equalresponsibility for achieving goals. These are usuallysmall task forces of people who can work togetherunder their own supervision. However hard it is toimagine a group with more than one leader, groupswith none at all can be highly productive if theirmembers have the qualities of effective followers. Groups with temporary and rotating leadershipare another possibility. Again, such groups are probably best kept small and the rotation fairly frequent, although the notion might certainly be extended to include the administration of a smalldepartment for, say, six-month terms. Some ofthese temporary leaders will be less effective thanothers, of course, and some may be weak indeed,which is why critics maintain that this structure isinefficient. Why not let the best leader lead? Whysuffer through the tenure of less effective leaders?There are two reasons. First, experience of the leadership role is essential to the education of effectivefollowers. Second, followers learn that they mustcompensate for ineffective leadership by exercisingtheir skill as good followers. Rotating leader or not,they are bound to be faced with ineffective leadership more than once in their careers. Delegation to the lowest level is a third technique for cultivating good followers. Nordstrom’s,the Seattle-based department store chain, giveseach sales clerk responsibility for servicing and satisfying the customer, including the authority tomake refunds without supervisory approval. Thiskind of delegation makes even people at the lowestlevels responsible for their own decisions and forthinking independently about their work. Finally, companies can use rewards to underlinethe importance of good followership. This is not aseasy as it sounds. Managers dependent on yes people and sheep for egogratification will not leap at the ideaof extra rewards for the people whomake them most uncomfortable. Inmy research, I have found that effective followers get mixed treatment.About half the time, their contributions lead to substantial rewards.The other half of the time they are punished bytheir superiors for exercising judgment, takingrisks, and failing to conform. Many managers insistthat they want independent subordinates who canthink for themselves. In practice, followers whochallenge their bosses run the risk of getting fired.In today’s flatter, leaner organization, companieswill not succeed without the kind of people whotake pride and satisfaction in the role of supportingplayer, doing the less glorious work without fanfare. Organizations that want the benefits of effective followers must find ways of rewarding them,ways of bringing them into full partnership in theenterprise. Think of the thousands of companiesthat achieve adequate performance and lacklusterprofits with employees they treat like second-classcitizens. Then imagine for a moment the power ofan organization blessed with fully engaged, fullyenergized, fully appreciated followers.Author’s note: I am indebted to Pat Chew for her contributionsto this article. I also want to thank Janet Nordin, Howard Seckler, Paul Brophy, Stuart Mechlin, Ellen Mechlin, and SyedShariq for their critical input.Reprint 88606FOLLOWERS8 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988Groups with many leaders canbe chaos. Groups with none canbe very productive.
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