Review of Followership

“I could conclude this chapter about values by making a list of the traits and capacities of good followers, like all those other lists we have of the traits and capacities of good leaders. But I will refrain from so doing for two simple reasons. First, ideally such lists should be situation specific. For what it takes to be a good follower (and leader) is different in different circumstances. Second, such a list, would, in any case, strongly resemble those with whom we are already familiar, those that name the traits and capacities of good leaders. In other words, curiously, counterintuitively, what it takes to be a good follower looks a lot like what it takes to be a good leader. Like good leaders, good followers should be informed, energetic, independent, and so on. And, like good leaders, good followers should have the capacity to cope with complexity, to manage change, to exercise good judgment, and so on.”

From chapter 9, “Values,” page 236, Barbara Kellerman in Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders

I first heard Barbara Kellerman’s voice on Harvard Business School’s podcast, “IdeaCast 131: ‘What Charisma Really Is (and isn’t),’” before I read her book.

The title immediately caught my attention and my library contact at our local library found the book available through Inter-library Loan (ILL) from Valparaiso University’s Moellering Collections. (Thanks Kendallville Public Library and VU!)

This book causes you to sit up and take notice. In it, she speaks of four kinds of followers, “by-standers” who stand by and do nothing, “participants,” who are more involved than by-standers but less than the next two, which are, “activists,” and “diehards,” who are followers who get involved and get things done, even to the point of death. She writes of “by-standers” in the context of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, “participants” in the context of Merck’s situation with Vioxx, “activists” in the context of the Voice of the Faithful who took on the Catholic hierarchy in regards to the tragic revelations of clergy abuse, and “diehards” in the context of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan.

Each of these situations are honestly examined regarding leader-follower dynamics and the impact (including life and death impact) on those involved. I also appreciate her work on the issues of values (from which chapter the above quote is taken) and how followers can meaningfully contribute to the health and development of an organization and even a nation.

I happen to agree with her about leaders having less power to do what ever and that as organizations have grown ‘flatter’ and the power that information has today, leaders have less room to maneuver than in previous years. But it was the quote above that really sealed the deal for me as to the importance of this book in leadership in the faith community as well as business, government, and the community as a whole.

Leaders are both followers as well as leaders and there is a larger ethical and social responsibility these days that we must come to grips with. Put this book on your reading list and shelf and discuss it with those you work with and for.


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