Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, by Barbara Kellerman (261 pgs; 2008: Harvard Business Press)
The topic of followership has come to the forefront of my thinking over the last 13 months, ever since I read the book A Vision of the Possible in November 2011. I style myself much more of a follower than a leader, and have often realized the lack of literature that serves to highlight the role and promote the growth of those who function with relatively little power, authority, and responsibility.
And so, my quest began to answer the question: where is the book that is written for me? Where is the book concerned with encouraging me to do well in my following, rather than trying to convince me that what I need is to become a leader?
In all honesty, I believe that I will in fact need to end up writing this book, as I have yet to find one. However, in the meantime, I am doing my best to familiarize myself with the books that have been written, such as they are.
Kellerman’s book, while still not the ultimate guide for encouraging followership that I am hoping for, is a helpful exploration of the realities of contemporary culture as regards the leader-follower dynamic. As a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, she is primarily concerned with followership within the realms of business and politics. However, her aim of promoting the reality of the follower as an integral part of any organization is well achieved in this book.
She works with very clear definitions of follower and followership, and details many of the circumstances in our modern day which are establishing an environment where those in subordinate positions can no longer be ignored. The Internet, both in providing accessibility to information and social networking platforms, is one of the factors that she highlights.
Kellerman does an excellent job of raising awareness about followership, making the case that followers–especially when they operate as a group–cannot be ignored. CEOs can no longer dictate policy without heeding the masses of workers that are below them on the org chart. Whether in support of favored leaders or in opposition to bad leaders, a group of followers binding together is a powerful influence. Equally so, a group of followers which stands by doing nothing, tacitly agreeing to the dictates of leaders, can contribute to horrendous mistakes.
While she offers a four (or five) part scheme for categorizing followers (effectively based on level of engagement), this paradigm did not strike me as particularly useful. The lines separating the categories are far too blurry (is this person a Participant or an Activist?) and there were no clear implications of being able to correctly label someone. As a tool to heighten awareness aimed at leaders, perhaps it is helpful, but again I find myself looking for the book that is clearly directed to us followers with the purpose of improving us in our role as such.
The real-world case studies used provide engaging explorations of the role followers have played in significant political and corporate events of our modern era. Still, much of the text which could be aimed directly at followers is slanted towards the ideas of weighing risks, self-preservation, building one’s influence…with the basic dictum that to be a good follower is to do something (either oppose or support). I’m looking for more specific engagement with the day-to-day realities of following well, the challenges, obligations, and opportunities of using our (lack of) position in the most positive of ways.
This book is extremely well-researched, and highlighted for me a number of resources that I will explore next. It was also surprisingly readable; I am not a huge fan of academic leadership literature, government analysis, or the dissection of corporate culture, but I found Kellerman’s work to be very approachable and free from jargon.
While it would be helpful for anyone, this book is probably still best for leaders rather than followers. In raising awareness about the importance and potential power of followers, it is highly effective. To a lesser degree, it may prove motivational to followers who underestimate the value they can contribute and the possibilities they have–especially in groups–for bringing about constructive change.
As for me, I will continue to work my way through the other followership books on my shelf, and further refine my own ideas for how to encourage others like me to be the very best followers we can. This book was a worthwhile step in my journey, and I recommend it to those who have chosen to ignore the fact of followership or who have yet to engage with the reality of this category of contribution.