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What is followership, the hidden face of leadership?

Sylvie Deffayet Davrout , Professor, Leadership Development Chair Director

In this article, originally published in French in Harvard Business Review (HBR) France, Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, EDHEC Professor and Director of the Leadership Development Chair, analyses the notion of followership, an essential lever for better understanding and improving the practice of leadership.

Reading time :
7 Dec 2023
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In the field of research and education, the study of the relationship of influence between a leader and his followers generally focuses on the leader. In other words, the focus is on the qualities and skills a leader needs to be effective. This is known as the "leader centric" approach.

This perspective may have the advantage of (artificially) boosting the leader's prestige. But it also forces them to have total control over the behaviour of their followers. It's as if the leader's entire performance, even though it's produced by a group of people, rests on his or her shoulders alone; an all-powerful vision of the leader that is no longer relevant at a time when leaders and followers would benefit from becoming learning resources for each other.

 

Among the advocates of followership, Robert E. Kelley, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, showed that leaders are only responsible for around 20% of the work carried out in an organisation. As early as 1988, he spoke out against this incomplete view and went on to document a number of ways of better understanding the role of followers in the success of leaders and companies ("In Praise of Followers", by Robert E. Kelley, Harvard Business Review, 1988).

Looking at the follower means trying to :

- identify the reasons why a person decides to rely on a leader, and also

- better understand, or even predict, how they will behave as a result.

 

Follower and followership not to be missed

Without followers, there is no leader or leadership. It is the follower who, by agreeing to be led, confers legitimacy on the leader. The follower therefore has a power that we tend to overlook. They can commit themselves fully to the leader's side, thereby increasing the latter's prestige, or, at the opposite extreme, they can oppose the leader's demands, when faced with a toxic leader, for example.

Putting followership back at the heart of the equation replaces the leader with attempts to influence, which, if (and only if) they are validated by followers, establishes leadership, but does not place the entire obligation of results on the leader.

 

Strange, then, that research has devoted so little energy to the study of followership: Nicolas Bastardoz and Mark Van Vugt counted that in all the articles published in The Leadership Quarterly at the end of 2017, only 8% used the term 'follower' (or a derivative) in their title, compared with 83% who used the term 'leader'. As for the abstracts of these articles, 22% referred to followership and 94% to leadership ("The nature of followership: Evolutionary analysis and review", The Leadership Quarterly, 2019).

 

Fortunately, the rich insights of research on followership makes it possible to supplement the information and training provided to leaders in the context of the influence they have to exert. What's more, we can't ask others to follow us if we don't know how this followership mechanism works (for us). It's obvious that Leader and Follower feed off each other.  But let's get back to "follower" and "followership": what exactly are they?

 

The follower, a human being who chooses

A follower is defined as a person who adopts the leader's objectives either temporally (e.g. directions) or structurally (authority of a parent, manager, etc.) and who freely accepts this influence from the leader. And if they freely accept this influence, it's generally because, in their eyes, it's the best option or strategy among a range of other alternatives...

 

To read this article in full (in French), visit hbrfrance.fr

 

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

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