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5 ways to creating followership leadership

Creating followership leadership is the next evolution in organisational development

If you’re over 40 like me (not far I might add!), then the chances are you will have experienced a couple of major recessions, maybe some redundancy and probably a whole bunch of new ways to do old things that made you think “not this again” or “we’ve tried this before”. Well here comes “creating followership leadership“.

Now first things first, this is not a new idea and personally, I don’t think it warrants being called a theory as such. It’s more a common sense, reminder with a bit of conscious effort throw in on the side. It is however, something that I think is still largely only done by those to whom it tends to be a natural way of leading based on their own personality and experiences. I said it is not a new concept and it’s not. Mary Parker Follett argued back in the 1930s that followership was a fundamental area to explore in developing leadership. Some 80 years later and the research and publications on the subject are still very limited compared to the traditional studies of leadership.

So how important is creating followership leadership?

If you really want to know, just take a look at the British General Election in 2010. The British public (the followers) decided that no main political party was good enough outright and so they voted and forced the country to change the way it led the UK, forming a coalition for only the second time in our history. Want another example, just look at the middle east situation where a number of countries’ people have ousted governments because they want things to be different.

Now, by organisational standards, these are extreme examples, but it illustrates the importance placed on followers and not just leadership.

Gallup, the polling and research organisation, conducting a study a couple of years back and were able to quantify the link between employee disengagement and business performance. They reported a $300 billion loss in corporate profits due to poor productivity of followers not effectively engaged.

So, as a leader, is it both necessary and challenging to engage your people and create true followership. Below, I have highlighted a model which explores the types of followers based on their capability and their level of engagement. As a starting point this helps us to explore our own teams and create a rough positioning from what we know about them. From here we can begin to make decisions about what to do in supporting each type of individual. So let’s take a quick look at the model itself.

creating followership leadership

Follower’s Engagement

This is the extent to which a person is noticeably bought into your leadership and the nature of the work you require them to do.

Follower’s Capability

This is the extent to which a person has the knowledge, skills, resources and clarity of task that allows them to potentially be fully capable.

Actively Negative

This implies that the person is being proactive in some negative behaviour on purpose, either out of protest, frustration or a lack of any other standard way to behave. It is termed as Active because the implication is that the negativity is directed towards destructive behaviours.

Passively Negative

Here, the negativity is not on purpose or directed at negative behaviour. Instead it comes from a place of maybe, resignation or just not knowing that they should be doing something more. They are typically not negative in person, it is more the lack of either ability or engagement that means their performance may be having a negative effect on the team or task. For these people typically, if they knew a bit more or they felt more included and valued they may easily move into the more positive places on the matrix.

Passively Positive

These are the people who are on the cusp of something much better than where they currently are, they just need developing, guiding or maybe an opportunity to demonstrate their potential fully. These people are typically in a positive place, but it is passive so they may be unaware of it explicitly, but they also may not advocate the team or department consciously. It wouldn’t take too much effort to help these folks move into becoming more actively positive. For some it may be some coaching, for others it may that project opportunity so they can shine through their own efforts.

Actively Positive

This group are proactive typically about their positive feelings towards the leader, department and team. They are generally willing to do more and go the extra mile. These are you potential allies in helping to build and grow engagement and capability amongst others in the team.

Exploring the roles in the matrix

Each person within your team will be emitting certain behaviours that will help you to understand what potential role they are playing out on the matrix. Some team members may just be passing through the matrix on their way to “shining star”, whilst others may be stuck at a particular role. Your challenge is to identify where they are and work out what to do about it. Below, we have created a top level summary highlighting some of the common signs to look for in spotting the role someone is in. We have also given you some basic pointers at activities which can help to tackle these roles and help move them into a new position further along the matrix.

Followership Leadership Explained


Now obviously this is just a framework and it does not take into account individual’s life experiences or personality traits. We also need to factor in what we know about an individual’s personal style, personality or circumstances which may be affective where they are currently at. Take care to test your assumptions about where you think they are on the matrix, by supporting your view with “why” you think they might be there. This will just help you to be more thorough in deciding how to support them.

There was some research undertaken a few years back, which looked at what followers looked for in a leader when deciding how much faith and followership to give them. Some of the results are quite interesting and maybe not what you would think of typically. Below are the 5 top things that followers say they want to see in a leader when considering how much followership commitment to give.

  1. Believability – Followers want to believe that the leader knows what they are doing and has the confidence and drive to inspire them to “go with them”. Believability is said to be an umbrella for leadership characteristics such as charm, confidence, charisma, experience, drive, energy etc. When asked, followers describe it as “that feeling you get knowing you are in good hands”. An interesting note here is that believability is not related to authenticity. Leaders do not need to be authentic to create great followership, however, if they do things which are in-congruent with their believability, then followership will suffer.
  2. Fairness – From a followers perspective, fairness is extremely important. It is also a tough challenge though because what one person sees as fair another may not. As a leader, there is a requirement to demonstrate open fairness whether that is dealing with poor performance, an imbalance in individual efforts and output or their own personal style and perspectives on things. Around 80% of grievances from followers against leaders are as a result of some perceived lack of fairness or equality.
  3. Challenging – 95% of followers want challenge in their work. They don’t want to be overworked to the point of burnout. They don’t want to be overloaded without support or resources until they crumble under the stress and pressure. They do want healthy, stretching challenge. Too often though, leaders don’t know when enough is enough, or when someone is moving from effective to ineffective, until it’s too late. Followers want challenge but it has to be something that they can achieve through thinking smarter, differently and more creatively about how they use their time, resources and network, not about working more hours and having less life. Challenge is another big factor that can affect a followers drop-off if you get it wrong as a leader.
  4. Excitability – It might seem like an odd one, but bear with me. Now, everyone can remember the most amazing events, parties and activities they’ve been involved in. Why? Because they were exciting, interesting and out of the norm. This is in much the same way that people can remember the worst events and most troubling times, because they were so unusual compared to everyday life. Followers want to be excited and be interested in the work that they do. In creating followership leadership, you have the ability to contextualise things and their importance in the grand scheme. You help set the pace of activities and the drive thrown into them. If you want to know more about this, just look up “Harrah Casinos” case study. Harrah leadership does this to great effect.
  5. Experience – Personally, I don’t think this one would have featured strongly 10 years ago, however I think the world has changed massively since then and followers now want some safety in knowing that their leader has the wisdom and judgement that comes from having “been there and had the t-shirt”. These kinds of leaders have the life experience that makes them inquisitive enough to ask the right questions that challenge blind or dangerous assumptions, test out theories and consider multiple perspectives. Leaders that lack this life experience are dangerous without the right guidance and support. Dangerous enough in fact to collapse whole companies, change industry make up and cause recessions! The great news here is that followers will forgive some lack of experience when a leader admits it and calls on the team to support with their experience and knowledge.

Ok, so the above is a short journey into what I think is a growing subject area and one that I think will become increasingly important in our global working environment. I hope it has given some new and potential leaders, some good tips to help them in creating followership leadership. Maybe it will also provide some food for thought to some seasoned leaders too.

About Andy H

Andy H
I have been working in Training & Development for over 20 years and also in web development and internet marketing for nearly 10 years. I have managed training functions and operational functions in some of the leading industry brands and been fortunate to learn from some amazing people. My specialist areas are experiential learning, coaching and performance consulting.

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