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Follow the Leader: SIOP Members Explain How “Followership” is Important to Leadership

By Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist

It’s a common belief that every good enterprise benefits from a good leader. But attention to good “followership” is also important for achieving significant goals.

“An old, and true, saying is that you can’t have leaders without followers,” said retired SIOP Fellow Dr. Edwin P. Hollander. He went on to quote the late John Gardner saying, “Executives can be given subordinates, but a following must be earned.”

According to Hollander’s new book, Inclusive Leadership (NY: Routledge/Taylor and Francis), leaders can earn an active followership by “doing things with people, not to people.”

Hollander said leaders can do this by including followers in leadership functions, such as decision making, showing they value their knowledge and opinions.  Listening and learning are central to this process of inclusive leadership. As stated in his book, the four Rs basic to these are respect, recognition, responsiveness, and responsibility, both ways, Hollander explained.

“Some leaders may rely on sheer authority and the ability to withhold benefits from people, or otherwise threaten them,” Hollander explained. “‘Inclusive leadership’ is a process of reducing this fear element and encouraging active followership, taking account of the needs and expectations involved. These positive features of the shared situation with the leader are signs of consideration. Inclusive leadership is designed to bring followers actively into the leadership process.”

In research on an Inclusive Leadership Scale published by the International Leadership Association in June 2008, Hollander and his coauthors studied the relationship between followers and leaders. They then related these to the ratings of leader performance and consequences.  Using a 20-item scale, 267 respondents evaluated a leader they recently encountered.  Items were actual words used in critical incident responses of 293 other respondents, also of mixed gender.  Three factors accounted for 58% of the variance, for the 16 items retained. The first was Communication-Action-Fairness (5 items), the second Support-Recognition (6 items), and the third Self-Interest-Disrespect (5 items). Reliabilities were .79, 83, and .81.

“This research tells what makes leadership effective from the follower’s perspective,” Hollander said. “The correlations are significant between the way the leader behaves in interacting with others and how their performance is regarded by their followers.”

Dr. Russell Johnson, SIOP Member and assistant professor in the University of South Florida Psychology Department, agrees that including followers and encouraging participation helps organizations function.

“Give them a voice,” he said. “That makes employees feel good, so it increases motivation. That’s part of being an effective leader because it shows that you value followers’ input. If you make all the decisions, it means you are a tyrant, basically.”

Leaders can also compel good followership by showing charisma and optimism and using a “we can achieve this together” approach, Johnson said. By doing so, leaders can shift followers’ self-interested motivation to motivation that benefits their work team or company instead.

Leaders aren’t the only ones who can encourage active followership, he added. Followers can also work on being active and engaged. This, in turn, reinforces leadership’s efforts and makes follower-leader relationships stronger, Johnson said.

“Followers can boost managers’ motivation to be leaders by doing a really good job and joining in,” he said. “Followers can also go above and beyond what is expected of them by doing things that are not mandated by the leaders but are expressed by the leader as ‘I need you to do this.’ Employees who show good followership, who contribute to the organization, tend to go above and beyond expectations.”

This active followership, in turn, helps everyone, Hollander explained.

“Positive attitudes toward active followership in an organization have a great deal to do with organizational success, as opposed to ‘check your head at the door’ attitude,” he added. “It also matters if you distrust someone you work for and are not able to put your full effort into your work. Among other things, trust increases the likelihood of people contributing to and staying on in an organization. Participation gives them a sense of being included as stake-holders. Good followership is essential to good leadership.”

Hollander and Johnson said recognizing that followers’ attitudes matter isn’t a new idea, but that the main focus still tends to be on the leader’s actions and attitudes.

“It’s not new,” Johnson said. “But what needs to be more accepted by researchers and consultants is not dropping the ball on leadership, but really realizing that it takes two to tango, and every follower has an effect on his or her leadership.”

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Dr. Hollander is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emeritus at CUNY’s Baruch College and Graduate Center. He has written six books, three of which deal with leadership/followership.  The others are Leadership Dynamics (Free Press/Simon & Schuster), and Leaders, Groups, and Influence (Oxford).