Misunderstanding Followership

Followership, like leadership, is prone to misunderstanding. Unlike leadership, however, followership has few (if any) positive perceptions in contemporary culture. In the 1990s, David Berg conducted several training seminars on leadership and followership and reported that participants used words like “sheep,” “passive,” “obedient,” “lemming,” and “serf” to describe followers—hardly an attractive description.1 Similarly, a recent academic literature survey says that followership stereotypes

view followers as recipients or moderators of leaders’ influence (Shamir, 2007) who dutifully carry out the orders, directives, and whims of the leader, without resistance or initiative (Kelley, 1988). Not surprisingly, the resultant focus has been nearly exclusively on leaders, and the vast history of research on leadership can be viewed as the study of leaders and “subordinates.”2

We believe these offer fairly accurate descriptions of followership stereotypes, but they are far wide of the mark when it comes to a vision of what followership really is. We also believe this (mis)perception of followership is harmful and dangerous to organizations, leaders, and followers alike. When our organizations expect followers to be weak, easily led, and mindlessly dependent on leadership, they will get exactly that. When leaders expect these qualities in those who follow them, they will lead as if they alone understand the mission of the organization and the way it can be achieved. And when followers conceive of themselves in this fashion, the low expectations make them see themselves as “just followers” or “mere followers,” which in turn leads to passive detachment from the mission of the organizations they serve. Such detachment saps energy and creativity from the organization and also drains the jobs we do of the meaning we might otherwise find in them. It is important, therefore, that we rethink and correct our stereotypes of followership.

Followership Defined

Before we consider mistaken beliefs about followership, we should offer a simple definition and a few clarifications of what this definition does and doesn’t mean. First, let’s consider efforts to define followership from academic literature. One source summarizes,

Following behaviors represent a willingness to defer to another in some way. DeRue and Ashford (2010) describe this as granting a leader identity to another and claiming a follower identity for oneself. Uhl-Bien and Pillai (2007) refer to it as some form of deference to a leader: “if leadership involves actively influencing others, then followership involves allowing oneself to be influenced” (p. 196). Shamir (2007) argues that following is so important to leadership that it negates the construct of shared leadership altogether: “leadership exists only when an individual (sometimes a pair or a small group) exerts disproportionate non-coercive influence on others” (p. xviii).3
Our first biblical identity is one of followership.

Clearly, a defining characteristic of followership in all these descriptions is a posture of deference to a leader. But this isn’t enough. Almost all studies of followership also identify other characteristics like engagement and mission ownership. For example, one scholar writes that “what distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant participation—without star billing—in the pursuit of an organizational goal.”4 Any full definition of followership, then, should include (1) deference (otherwise it doesn’t have the core conceptual distinction between leaders and followers), (2) zeal and engagement (otherwise a person is not actively following, they are simply being led or dragged along), and (3) mission ownership (otherwise following is for the sake of following itself, not for the sake of successfully doing a worthy task).

Some might object to the idea of deference because it sounds like it reinforces the passive stereotype, but the other two aspects of this definition help to avoid this error. Engagement and mission ownership require a deference that is freely and actively chosen. There is no room in this definition for coerced following or passive following. The follower is leaning into and pressing forward with the task at hand—a task that they fully own and are personally committed to. It should also be noted that the same literature that identifies deference as part of followership frequently includes lengthy discussions of leadership and followership as a joint venture and ongoing relational process, even describing leadership as being “co-produced” by leaders and followers.5 Thus the deference we are considering here is not the passive, sheeplike obedience that is disdained and mocked in our stereotypes.

Overall, the definition we have just drawn from the academic literature is largely compatible with Christian thought about followership, though we would add an important qualification. Any particular role of following is subordinate to our highest call of following: we follow Christ (deference) through the power of the Spirit and with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (engagement and zeal) in order to glorify God and build his kingdom (mission ownership). So for those who follow Christ, all of life’s roles and responsibilities are part of such following. It is also essential that we understand that the pervasively negative attitude we have toward deference and subordination runs afoul of biblical attitudes toward followership. Obviously, we follow Christ himself, but we also follow human leaders he has put in authority over us, including both secular rulers (Rom. 13:1) and spiritual overseers (1 Thess. 5:12–13). Our first biblical identity is one of followership—and if that notion is distasteful to us, it is likely that we have some work to do in transforming our own heart attitudes.

Joanne J. Jung, Richard Langer

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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