What is Followership?

If you Google “leadership” you get 122,000,000 results, but a mere 145,000 for followership. That would be nearly 1000 leaders per follower if representative! Do we all want to be chiefs and not Indians? Is it that people already know how to follow and be of service? And what is this followership thing anyway!?

I’m often asked to write about leadership and love doing so, however I’ve been wanting to discuss followership and service for some time as it seems to be the other side of the coin. Let’s start with why it’s not discussed as much?

Egoic Leadership?

In the modern meritocratic Western world leaders are often seen as “better” than followers- that’s why they’re leading right? The emphasis on achievement in modern Western culture backs this up – anyone can be a follower but winners are leaders right? Mmmmmmmm, I’m not so sure…

Note that this viewpoint hasn’t always been common. From Confucius to the Greeks – ancient cultures emphasised the characteristics of good citizens with service at the heart. The “everyone’s a leader” ego gone mad of the modern Western world would have struck almost every culture the world has ever produced as bizarre. Communal cultures in the East still value traditional followership virtues such as loyalty – see for example how business is done in Japan – and this is the case in much of Africa too (it was when I lived in Ethiopia).

For me the idea of egoic leadership is a fundamental error as true leaders are in service to something beyond themselves. In other words leadership is a form of followership. This idea finds expression in the notion of Servant Leadership.

So What is Followership?

One could focus on the characteristics of “good followers”, and there are some lists out there (see resources). The problem with such lists however is the same problem for list on leadership attributes – they get bigger and bigger with discussion and seem to describe the perfect human. Often it is balancing seemingly opposing qualities such as loyalty and challenging where followership lies. So how do the lists help? They say “be of service and here’s what it might look like…though it might look like the opposite.In this example the integration between being loyal (more of a subjective external judgement than a description of behaviour) and challenging a leader when you think it will help – is service. Perhaps the essence of followership is just being of service.

The lack of ego in emphasising service and followership instead of “leadership” (often misconstrued as egoic) is sorely needed in the world today. What would it be like if the training for leadership positions in organisations first involved followership? Could we broaden customer service courses (which are often just customer manipulation courses) to simply “service” courses – I’d like to see that as a HSE mandatory requirement for doing business.

I hope this article has been of service anyway 🙂

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”
— Benjamin Disraeli

Followership Resources

While resources on followership aren’t as widespread as those on leadership, there are some out there:

Changing Minds have some good resources on followership. For example their list of reasons to follow (which reminds me of levels of development):

– Fear of retribution
– Blind hope
– Faith in leader
– Intellectual agreement
– Buying the vision

This US Air Force Colonel has some “Rules of Good Followership” that I enjoyed. If anyone knows about good followership it’s the armed forces who in my experience have a culture of followership and don’t see it as a ego blow to admit it. They are “The Services” after all.

This article on managing/leading upwards is worth a read. The idea is that leadership is not just something that happens down a hierarchy, and can be done by anyone irrespective of position.


  1. Adrian McGinn