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By Ellen Pearlman

Strategic Thinker: Barbara Kellerman

Credentials: James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School; Founding Executive Director of the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership from 2000 to 2003; and from 2003 to 2006 she served as the Center's Research Director. She is also the recipient of several prestigious fellowships and is the author and editor of many books and articles on leadership. She is ranked sixth by Leadership Excellence on the list of the 100 "Best Minds on Leadership"

Big Idea: Followers are every bit as important as leaders

Book: "Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders" published by Harvard Business Press, February 2008. Blog: Political Animals http://discussionleader.hbsp.com/kellerman/


If you do a book search at Amazon.com you'll find over 40,000 books on leadership, but only 39 on followership. The term itself is not often used or understood. In her book "Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders," Barbara Kellerman defines it as "the response of those in subordinate positions (followers) to those in superior ones (leaders)." She also defines followers as "subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line."


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What is important about this book is that followers-not just leaders, of which so much has been written-are becoming bolder and more strategic. Part of that change is attributed to the Internet, which provides a voice to people who have historically been voiceless. This subtle shift in the balance of power between leaders and followers may represent a seismic change in how successful organizations and governments lead and respond to their followers. Kellerman goes so far as to caution leaders who ignore or dismiss their followers to "do so at their peril."


Kellerman and other experts see signs of change everywhere; with people of lower rank taking on established leaders when they are asked to do something they consider immoral or illegal. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book "Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower" calls this phenomenon a "global political awakening." According to Kellerman followers began to exert this power during the political and social upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s. The information revolution took this further by making information and access to it the new power symbol. Says Kellerman, "In knowledge economies competence can and often does trump position as an indicator of who in fact is leading and who in fact is following.


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There are different types of followers-Kellerman identifies five, ranging from the detached isolates to the most engaged diehards, willing to die if necessary for their cause. In between are the bystanders, who observe but do not participate; participants who are somewhat engaged; and activists who feel strongly about their leaders and act accordingly.


Most of us understand why people follow leaders, even bad ones. The key reason is self-interest-we fear the cost of resistance. But it is not only leaders that people follow-followers also want to stay in step with other followers. "The pressure to conform, to go along, comes not only from leaders but from other followers as well," notes Kellerman.


So what is the significance of this for CIOs and other IT professionals?


Executives and other managers need to understand it is not enough to develop future leaders, it is also essential to encourage followers to speak up. Says Kellerman: "Superiors are being advised [by corporate experts] to provide a friendly environment, in which subordinates feel free to provide honest feedback. In fact, bosses are being told actually to concern themselves with 'silent employees,' who have concluded 'the risk of speaking up-the chance that they would be ignored, shot down or labeled a troublemaker-outweighed the potential benefits.' "


But Kellerman's message doesn't end there. She also says that subordinates need to learn that they don't need permission to speak truth to their superiors. They are not second-class citizens, but a "phenomenon to be reckoned with in their own right." In fact, she believes that "followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers." After all, it is followers that influence other followers to take action.


Not everyone can be a leader, but everyone is a follower at one time or another. Putting the focus on being a good follower or on managing up is something that more people need to understand and practice. Of course, this is more difficult when faced with a bad leader. And, unfortunately, there are more of them than we'd like to see.


Findings from a survey of more than 700 workers by researchers at the Florida State University College of Business found that:


  • 39% said their supervisor failed to keep promises.
  • 37% said their supervisor failed to give credit when due.
  • 31% said their supervisor gave them the "silent treatment" in the past year.


Many of today's new leaders have learned from the "take no prisoners" style of past CEOs. Kellerman provides examples of several companies that replaced authoritarian and sometimes greedy leaders with a new type of CEO able to listen and persuade: Frank Blake who replaced Robert Nardelli at Home Depot, Martin Sullivan who succeeded Hank Greenberg at the top of American International Group, and Mark Hurd who was given the top post at Hewlett-Packard after Carly Fiorina.


Today's good leaders know they can't do it on their own. They need the support, ideas and activism of the people they lead. And they also know that in this information age, bad press about poor leaders travels fast.


Content reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Followership by Barbara Kellerman. Copyright (c) 2008 Barbara Kellerman; All Rights Reserved.


Also of interest:


CIOZ Question: What's your best advice on managing up? Post your ideas below.




Comments (2)
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1. 04-07-2008 13:44
 
Activists - The new Leaders 
 
 
In the evolving world of Open Source Software (OSS), the ways each community organizes itself fits nicely with Barbara Kellerman's five categories of followers (Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards).  
 
Unlike organizations where the leader is 'appointed,' leadership in OSS projects evolves as a group dynamic. 
 
The success of OSS projects is a function of attracting more people to be involved. Both Diehards and the authoritarian "take no Prisoner" types generally end-up with small followings, while Activists seem to draw communities together. 
 
My (un researched) observation is that CIOs should study Barbara's work Followers to learn what and how to be effective Activists.  
 
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2. 04-17-2008 15:27
 
Rear Admiral McKinnon (sp?) was quoted as saying something like “A good leader is someone who measures the abilities of subordinates, and then gets out of their way and let’s them do their job.”  
 
Managers and Chief Executives must look after the big picture issues and provide clear direction and goals to the organization. Subordinates, being aware of those objectives must conduct their daily work ethic toward doing their level best to support those objectives. To do otherwise, is a course to disaster, in my humble opinion.  
 
Of course leaders must listen to subordinates, and consider each person in the organization a vital part of the overall goals and objectives. If an individual is not supporting these goals then the evaluation process should eventually bring the organization back on course.  
 
Business is not a Socialistic enterprise. Nor is it necessarily a Democracy.  
 
It seems to me, that we as a society are struggling with Socialistic, Democratic, Republic and Anarchist concepts and ideas. I will leave it at that.
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