Followership – The Vaccination for Corporate-itis

By Kevin Zook

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

It goes without saying that many of us have our favorite sports stars and athletes that we follow and perhaps idolize on a certain level.

This is also true of comic book heroes, such as Superman and Batman. Or other TV shows like Star Trek – Captain Kirk, for example. For the sake of honesty and transparency, I am a huge Star Trek nerd and proud of that fact. These attitudes and behaviors are no different at work.

Most employees are in awe of the positions of their superiors, managers, and bosses. Collectively, we can refer to these people in non-management and middle management as followers. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but for the purpose of this exercise, let’s go with it for now. For the sake of simplicity, we need to assign a name to this phenomenon. How about leadership envy? Leadership envy it is.

Why Do Employees Have Leadership Envy?

Let’s explore this question historically, culturally, and logically.

First, envy is a simple and basic human emotion. Children will fight over the same toy, and members of my family will fight over the remote control for the TV or DVR. It is not that the child really wants the toy but that the child does not want anyone else to have the toy.

When we watch Tiger Woods hit the golf ball,  we think that it cannot be that difficult. He makes it look easy. Then we go to the driving range ourselves and find out how great Tiger Woods really is at playing golf. The first rule of greatness is to make the complex look simple. Many employees assume the job of their boss is not that difficult.

Breaking Organizational Boundaries

When Jack Welch took over as CEO of GE in the early 1980s, he was dealing with a very complex organization. He decided to have top managers switch jobs with middle managers and vice versa. After a while, each group understood the importance of the other group and their roles in the organization were not easy. However, each role in the organization needed a different skill set.

In essence, Welch had the followers become leaders, and the leaders became followers from a traditional corporate hierarchy perspective. Jack Welch broke organizational boundaries and had employees go where they had not gone before.

I am not sure if Welch pioneered this idea, but he did popularize this concept and in doing so, broke many historical, cultural, and business taboos that quite honestly were outdated and needed to be shattered. Welch freed the employees from the traditional organizational hierarchy.

Employees Are Not Subordinates

A subordinate is actually a term that came out of post-slavery America. When the South had Jim Crow laws and newly freed slaves were working for their former overlords on the same plantations, large industrial corporations in the north had countless immigrants as cheap labor. The term employee is a relatively new invention in the post-World War II Era. The term follower is even newer, being popularized by Dr. Robert Kelley in the 1980s.

The term follower existed in the American lexicon before Kelley popularized it, but follower and followership had negative connotations. Do any of you remember playing the game “Follow the Leader” when you were children? How many of you were told by your parents or grandparents that being a leader is better than being a follower? Or when you went on your first interview for a career-type job, that large corporations need leaders?

I can honestly say that I remember all of these things very clearly and vividly. When Kelley started popularizing the terms’ follower and followership, he was breaking down not only cultural barriers but also cultural norms and taboos. This was truly a new way of thinking in the corporate world.

Everyone is a Follower

The greatest lesson that Kelley taught us is so simple and so basic that it is absurd we ignore it. Every person at some time in their life is a follower. The Founding Fathers were followers after the country was formed for the simple fact that none of them became a king or dictator. The point was demonstrated by Jack Welch when he had managers and employees trade jobs. More and more companies realize that it is the combination of followership and leadership that gets results.

The notion of followers and followership on a level playing field is still not the norm in American corporations, but it is becoming more and more commonplace. The traditional corporate hierarchy had top management at the highest level of the building, generally with a corner office with a great view. Companies like Google have smashed this concept entirely.

The workspaces at the Googleplex are wide open, with very few people having offices. Google has more of a shared management style, given the complexity of its projects. At times different people will have to be the boss for the day because that is when their expertise is required. Google still has a CEO and VPs, but far fewer layers.

Leverage Your Followers’ Leadership Skills

Kelley was not suggesting that organizations not have leaders and only followers; Kelley was suggesting leveraging your followers to assets and not liabilities on the corporate spreadsheets.

It is easy to see why many people have leadership envy; people want to be leaders. If you want to be a leader today, I would suggest that you do the following three steps:

1.  Study leadership principles: what makes a great leader a great leader?

2.  Study followership principles: what makes a great follower a great follower?

3.  Pick three historical figures and read their biographies like you were taking a graduate-level college course. I would start with the following historical figures:

  • Frederick Douglass a former freed slave. He wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
  • A biography about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. There are a number of biographies available on Gandhi.
  • Simon Bolivar was a great historical leader of South America that helped many South American countries to gain independence from the Spanish Empire.
  • Mary Parker Follett was an early scholar and pioneer in the areas of leadership and management theory. She gained notoriety in the early part of the 20th century.

These are only a few people out of a long list of possibilities. It is important to have a historical perspective on how people have combined leadership and followership practices.

This article was a broad and sweeping overview of followership and different concepts of followership. In future articles, specific aspects of followership will be addressed, and these concepts will be directly related to your job, hopefully giving you the knowledge to be more successful and savvy at your job.

Has Followership Been Overlooked?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Kevin Zook
Kevin Zook
Kevin has been an Online Instructor for seven years teaching management, business, and communication classes. He is completing his dissertation in followership en route to earning his Doctorate in Management.
  • Stephen B. Carman says:


    Thanks for the perspective you shared in the article. I agree “followership” has not been leveraged organizationally they way it could have. It is helpful for all organizational members to develop mutual respect for one another, regardless of position. I believe increased respect would alleviate the focus some have on title, position, etc.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Brilliant Leadership Logo

    Improve Yourself & Your Team

    Get The Training Proven By 40,000+ Leaders