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Surely you know how to lead, but do you know how to follow?

February 9, 2016 – by Roosmaryn Spliet &samhoud consultancy

Leadership is hot and alluring in today’s world. Nowadays everyone wants to be a successful leader. And so the prestigious business schools are eager to develop future proof leaders. But did you know that leadership demands good followership?

Great followers

In 2010 we were in Soweto with our colleagues on an ‘educational trip down to memory lane’. We were searching for the roots of our company vision and at the same time developing content for our leadership programs. One day we visited the Mandela mansion. Of course we saw nobody coming out the house. But down the street we saw an older man who was about to get into his car. We went over to him, introduced ourselves and asked him if he knew Mandela. The man said he was a schoolteacher. And of course he knew Mandela. “Was he a good leader?” we asked. “Was? Is, you mean. Mandela still is a great leader.” “Of course, but now he’s retired”, we replied. “That is not what I mean” the man said. “Look at me. I was born and raised in Soweto. I have always worked extremely hard, studied and made it to be a schoolteacher. There is only one Mandela. But there are many like me. And it’s the hundreds of thousands of people like me who rebuilt this country, taking our leader as our role model. Great followers we are.”  “Great followers?” – the man started to laugh. “Of course”, he said, “It takes great followers to be a great leader. And Mandela is one of the greatest. That says something about us too.”

By being really proud of his followership, this man gave us a huge insight into Mandela’s leadership as well as leadership in general. This experience added an essential ingredient to our future leadership programs and that is the component of followership.


Followership is not new, but, understandably, it has always stood in the shadow of leadership. Until about ten years ago that is when followership started to become more and more popular. However, research on followership already started in 1955. The emergence of followership has been attributed to the scholar Robert Kelley. He explains that followership refers to a role. It is the capacity of an individual to actively follow a leader. So it is the reciprocal social process of leadership.

However, followership should not be seen as a way to blindly follow the leader, like a flock of docile sheep. Followership is the ability to take direction well, take responsibility for shared goals, to be a self-starter, to be part of a team, to deliver on what is expected of you, and tell leaders the truth when they mess up. How well followers follow is probably just as important to the success of an organization as how well the leader leads.

It is interesting though to see followership not only from the angle of a follower, but to see followership as the necessary other half in a leadership role. The fact is that, depending on the circumstances, everyone is both a leader and a follower. Reality shows us that without demonstrating an ability to follow, potential talents do not progress in more responsible leadership roles. Unfortunately, many leaders do not like to see themselves as followers. Some think it’s weak, not assertive. So being a ’great follower’ is not a reputation leaders necessarily strive for. Most leaders prefer to focus on the more inspirational, influential or impactful side of leadership. Often we see that the more we want to become leaders, the less we want to be followers. This is a pity because followership makes a huge difference in the success of an organization. When followership is a failure, not much gets done or is done poorly. While positive followership behavior is linked to improvements between 17-43% on sales, quality of work, revenue per employee and customer satisfaction. On top of that, we see that when leaders move up the organizational ladder, not only does leadership become more important, followership does too. Hurwitz[1] states that about 30% of management performance is followership related.

So, the time that leadership development was only about leaders is long gone – it is just as much about followership now.

Training followership capabilities has a great deal of potential and we see more and more executive teams make followership a focus topic. A survey[2] of more than 300 C-Suite executives shows that 98.6% think it improves performance, 99.7% think it affects work output quality and 95.7% disagree that everyone knows how to follow.

At &samhoud we incorporate both aspects in our leadership development program. We involve the followers of a leader, train them in their following role and inspire them about how they can contribute to the development of their leader. But we also teach leaders how to follow, to understand what it means to be a team member and to be able to take a step back and let a team lead itself. That does not mean we forget about leadership. Leadership is vital for success, but it is has changed and evolved from the past. What we see is that it is not a matter of being either a leader or a follower, it’s about knowing when to follow and when to lead.

Next blog: What makes a good follower? And how to shift from a leadership role to a followership role?


[1] Hurwitz, M. (2015) Leadership is half the story: a fresh look at followership, leadership and collaboration.

[2] Agho, A. O.  (2009). Perspective of senior‐level executives on effective followership and leadership. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 16, 2:159‐166.



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  • Charleff – Intelligent Disobedience (2015)
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  • Bjugstad et all – A Fresh Look at Followership: A Model for Matching Followership and Leadership Styles (2006)


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One Response to Surely you know how to lead, but do you know how to follow?

  1. Avatar adrian mcginn says:

    Thanks for your very welcome insights! and if anyone is interested further in Followership there is a Linkedin group which you can join and follow/share in the discussions – it is simply called Followership –

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