Do you know when you are leading? The answer is by your followers. We have long known that followers are essential to leadership. Yet despite the abundance of investigations into leadership in organizational studies (Yukl, 2012), little attention has been paid to followership until recently (Baker, 2007; Bligh, 2011; Carsten, Uhl-Bien, West, Patera, & McGregor, 2010; Kelley, 2008; Sy, 2010). Furthermore, when followers have been considered, they are thought of generally as recipients of a leader’s influence. As the study of followers as a key component of the leadership process, through their enactment of followership, has been largely missed in the leadership literature (Uhl-Bien, Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten, 2014), I have put the definition and the constructs of followership theory below.
Followership theory is the study of the nature and impact of followers and following in the leadership process (Uhl-Bien, Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten, 2014). This means that the construct of followership includes:
- A follower role (i.e., a position in relation to leaders)
- Following behaviors (i.e., behaviors in relation to leaders)
- Outcomes associated with the leadership process (i.e., performance)
If adopting a constructionist (process) approach, it also involves consideration of the co-constructed nature of the leadership process.
In addition to understanding the definition it is also important to establish clear boundaries for the study of followership (Bacharach, 1989; Cronbach & Meehl, 1955). Followership is the characteristics, behaviors and processes of individuals acting in relation to leaders. It is not general employee behavior. This means that the term follower is not the same as employee. For a construct to qualify as followership it must be conceptualized and operationalized in relation to leaders or the leadership
process and/or in contexts in which individuals identify themselves in follower positions (e.g., subordinates) or as having follower identities (Collinson, 2006; DeRue & Ashford, 2010).
• Followership characteristics: characteristics that impact how one defines and enacts followership. Examples may include role orientations, motivations, intellectual and analytical abilities, affect, and social constructions of followers and/or individuals
identified as engaging in following behaviors.
• Followership behaviors: behaviors enacted from the standpoint of a follower role or in the act of following. Examples include the multiple expressions of overt followership including obeying, deferring, voicing, resisting, advising, etc.
• Followership outcomes: outcomes of followership characteristics and behaviors that may occur at the individual, relationship and work-unit levels. Examples include leader reactions to followers, such as burnout or contempt, follower advancement or dismissal, whether leaders trust and seek advice from followers, and how followership contributes to the leadership process, i.e., leadership and organizational outcomes.
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Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., & Carsten, M. K. (2014). Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 83-104.
Yukl, G. (2012). Leadership in organizations (8th ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.