Followership: the Corollary to Leadership

Leadership & FollowershipIn a team environment high performing followers are every bit as important as good leadership, yet we pay the most attention to leadership. Recently I did an Amazon search for ‘leadership’ and got 73,828 hits, yet a search for ‘followership’ received only 187 hits, most of which were not relevant to the subject.  Conclusion: leadership is the hot topic; followership …not so much.

There is a built in assumption in our society that everybody should strive to be a leader.  That’s where the fame and fortune are—with the leaders.  You can get a PhD in organizational leadership, but you can’t even get a bachelor’s in followership.

Who is voted the MVP football player?  99% of the time it is the quarterback—the titled leader of the team.  Has a center ever been the MVP?  They are always there, even when the QB is injured.  They mix it up on every play.  If he doesn’t get it right the play fails and the game can be lost.  The center’s job is to make sure it is his quarterback that is presented the Lombardi trophy and say he is going to Disneyland.

There is one major exception to the lack of followership training: the military. The military is the best at training and educating followers.  Why?  Lives depend on the quick thinking and reaction of followers.  The best followers get to be leaders.  Their success as leaders is based on their followership.

My point is that we tend to emphasize leadership training in our organizations to the point where we have lost sight of how to get even better leaders and get a higher return on the investment in organizational training and education.  Simply stated, we need a focus on followership education.

Why should an organization focus on followership as least as much as leadership?

For starters, there are more followers than leaders and they are the ones that are doing the real work.  Logic tells us that we want the best followers possible and training and education are the means to develop them.

Great leaders will not guarantee an optimal organization, but great followers will come close.  The best organizational leaders will come from the ranks of the followers.  Therefore, focus on creating great followers and great leaders will emerge.

How do you nurture great followers?  We need to go beyond the standard answer of training in the actual job and move to a view of followership education just as we have done in leadership education.  Can we identify the traits of great followers?  Can they be learned and taught?  Yes to both, but first we need to look at organizational culture.

Followership is all about the culture

Every organization has a culture–a personality–and multiple sub-cultures which can promote or hinder the organization’s mission.  Leaders and followers want their organization’s culture to be positive and productive.  The formal culture can be designed and integrated in a way that the informal sub-cultures are also affected.

All organizations have lots of words on the wall: mission, vision, values, etc. statements that are impacted by the culture.  The culture gives life to the words in the best case and can kill their attainment in the worst case.

The best leaders craft the details of the organization’s culture in a variety of ways from funny to quirky to serious.  Some of those details can change over time, so the wise leader should put a rock-solid cultural foundation under the details.

The foundational, life-giving element is the “Followership Culture.”  Seven simple principles constitute the Followership Culture that guides everyday activities by everyone in the organization. They are easily taught, learned and integrated into any organization.

The followership principles

The 7 principles that make up the Followership Culture are:

Instant Response: Begin action immediately when assigned a task; complete it as fast as possible with quality; ask the leader to adjust priorities if necessary.

Initiative: Be a self-starter, just do it; look for problems to solve; look for new ways to accomplish the mission.

Imagination: An innate capability in all humans, share ideas daily to multiply their potential power; focus on the small stuff first as it leads to larger possibilities.

Integrity: Honesty; declare mistakes immediately; tell the truth without compromise, leaders cannot lead without it; prove to be trustworthy and you will be entrusted with more.

Inquire: Ask the “who, what, why, where, when and how” questions about everything to learn; leaders look for learners; teach others.

Inform: Keep the leader updated; no secrets allowed; share your tasks and ask for input.

Involve: Life and work is a team effort, join; participate in the whole organization; act beyond the job description.

More words on the wall?

Uh, oh!  Did we just add more words on the wall?  Unapologetically, yes!  On the wall, in the employee manual, anywhere it makes sense to put them.

But they have to be more than another set of words, they must result in action.  People are accountable for their actions, so they are recorded and graded in personnel evaluation reports.  The Followership Culture is also about accountability and the accountability tool is to put them in a section of the evaluation report.  This way the rock-solid foundation is reinforced with re-bar (steel rods).  It’s all about the culture, but it is a culture for which everyone is accountable.

Do leaders lead differently in a Followership Culture?

No.  Excellent leadership is still required just like it is in any successful organization.

Yes.  Their senses must be more attuned to certain leadership skills and traits in order to reinforce the Followership Culture.  For example, great leaders know that they must go to the locations where the followers are doing their work.  Whether it is a visit, a walk through, a lunch or just chatting on the floor, leaders know that direct contact with the followers is essential.

However, great leaders in the Followership Culture take a turn at doing the dirty work.  They start with what organizational people would say is the toughest, dirtiest job and they do it for a day.  Then they move on to other jobs and do them for a lengthy period.  They go beyond intellectually understanding what their followers do to feeling what they do.  It’s like a combination of the TV programs Undercover Boss (only this is overt) and Dirty Jobs.  The leaders are the follower for that period, not the boss paying a visit over coffee.

Followership leaders educate their followers in a mindset that permeates the entire organization from top to bottom so that everyone knows what is expected when they go to work every day.  If you educate followers to be great followers, your organization will perform at a higher level and great leaders will emerge.

Implementing the Followership Culture

Leaders need to gain control of the culture to propel the organization forward.  If not, culture will happen on its own and it won’t be all positive. These principles are described more in depth in “Follow to Lead, the 7 Principles to Being a Great Follower.”  The book contains a humorous, unforgettable fable to be used in a followership education experience for everyone in an organization. It also includes nine additional lessons for leaders so that they will be better leaders in the Followership Culture. You can see more about it at

Please share your perspective of Followership below.

Connect to Don Mercer: Website | LinkedIn | Facebook


  1. We believe that the key to having transformational leaders in Nigeria and in any nation as a matter of fact is first having a transformed people(followers). Leaders arise from the pool of people(followers) in any society. Thus if the vast majority of people(followership) in that particular society are deformed in their mindset then the kind of leadership we can expect to arise from them at best will be deformed leadership.
    The best way to reform a deformed mind is to inform that mind just as the best way to have highly effective leaders is to first raise a highly effective people(followers).

    As I prepare to teach a Leadership+Faith series in my church in June 2015, the above statement sums up my approach to the teaching – which is why I’m glad to have come across this lecture. I would like to request the privilege to use excerpts from you lecture in my church leadership series.

  2. In visionary leadership, such as that of Steve Jobs (e.g.,, followership is inherently difficult. Followers are not on the “same page” as the leader because they don’t have the vision inside, so there is inevitably tension. In my view, this tension/frustration creates a gap between leadership and followership in the case of visionary leadership.

  3. Don,

    Thanks for you kind comments and for posting some of what I wrote.

    I do agree with your principles and probably the 10 lessons, but I don’t consider them to be the key that unlocks the full potential of each employee.

    The key is listening and responding to employees to their satisfaction is the key because if your support reflects a low standard of some value, employees will make you aware of that so long as you are very open to them and listen carefully. In that way, the boss gets to learn the highest standards of all values whether or not he had them at the beginning. It is a learning process for the boss.

    It is all well and good to tell managers that they need to have integrity or to take initiative, but then almost no one knows what these mean in action. But one of your employees will have a higher standard of a particular value than you and will in essence teach you the existence of that standard and what it looks like in action.

    Hope that helps and thanks again, Ben
    Leadership is a science and so is engagement.

  4. Ben,
    Thanks for taking an interest in the discussion and providing additional insight.

    Here is what you wrote in your website article “What is Leadership?” “I discovered the importance of followership when I shifted away from using a traditional management approach. As a top-down manager, I was always figuring out my next order, giving it, and then checking to see whether the desired effect was occurring among my reports. If not, I issued more orders. In this mode, I never listened to my people and had no time to do so. When I finally changed my approach and began paying attention to my people, eventually I learned from them how followers acted in the workplace and what they were following. And what were they following? They were following the value standards I communicated and using those to do their work. It was then I learned what my leadership was.”
    The 7 followership principles and the 10 lessons learned for leaders on how to lead in a Followership Culture are the value and behavior standards you write about. They are not all inclusive for every organization, but they form the foundation for every organization’s culture (which includes their peculiar values).
    I enjoyed your videos and recommend them to others.

  5. Interesting discussion but I think it misses a critical point.

    Prospective car mechanics don’t study what existing car mechanics do. They study the cars they expect to be able to maintain. No one would ever counsel them to do otherwise though they might get a few tips from other car mechanics AFTER they are well versed in the cars.

    I managed people for over 30 years and never actually began to understand what leadership was until my people taught me what they followed and how they reacted to what I did, my “leadership”.

    Before that I had studied every book on management and leadership as well as man’s history, the world’s religion, psychiatry, psychology, and even how the brain works. No real help there.

    But listening to my people and responding to their needs to at least their satisfaction if not better, taught me all I needed to become able to lead them to be highly motivated, highly committed, and fully engaged. Learning their five basic needs and how they respond to managerial actions and inactions were key bits of knowledge.

    So armed, I was able to successfully turn around four separate management disasters including a nuclear powered cruiser (“the crew is wrecking the ship so stop that”) and a 1300 person unionized group (“your customers hate you so either get rid of the group or fix it, your choice”). Productivity gains >300% per person, high morale and almost all employees literally loving to come to work were just part of the results to say nothing of a values-based culture.

    I have made a few videos explaining most of this, available at

    Best regards, Ben
    Leadership is a science and so is engagement

  6. Interesting perspective but I’m not convinced this is a good idea. Really good leaders understand the skill of stepping back and letting others lead from time to time. Taking your example of a quarterback, they will have people on the team who are better in some area than they are, so if they are good they will let those people lead for a short time and step back. This is good for the team because it makes other players feel involved, allows you to play to everyone’s strengths and develops people. I wouldn’t want to lose this and I think a follower culture could well do that. What about succession planning, where are the people coming through that you are positioning as future leaders.
    As I say interesting perspective but I would need serious convincing before I could support this as an approach.

    • I share your view totally–no extra convincing needed. With such limited space there isn’t an opportunity to explain everything that is in the book.

      All great leaders recognize that they are not the fount of all knowledge and they must know when to follow a follower and for how long under what circumstances.

      In my case as a CEO I made sure the CFO led on many financial issues (my weakest link)then we worked together to set the course.

      In the military as an officer, I can’t tell how many times I followed my sergeants in many areas.

      Thanks for reminding us that leadership and followership work together.

      • Don
        Glad we agree, I will buy your book.
        For me the leaders I really admired are the those that are able to step in and out of different styles, apparently effortlessly, to suit the situation.
        Kind regards

  7. Thanks for the 7 Principals of Followership model. It’s a good one. Fortunately, times are changing. Several folks have gotten their Ph D’s with dissertations on followership asking questions to test my own five point model of courageous followership. For more information on this see my website anf the International Leadership Association Followership Learning Community that my website links to. It’s a great repository of followership scholarship and practice. You can post your own model there I that’s not been done yet.

    • Ira,
      Thanks for the kind words. I am familiar with your work and your site, but I guess I overlooked the fact that some have a PhD with dissertations on followership. I am inspired to hear that.

  8. Hi Don, Great article! I enjoyed the clear set of principles you presented and also the significance you point out of everyone in creating new levels of contribution for the organization and our 21st Century society. With the pressing problems we face on every front, you also affirm that we all have opportunities to influence the outcome in big and small ways every day by putting your principles into practice.

    An encouraging observation, it seems as people are rising up — regaining their confidence — we are witnessing how powerful “followership” is in gaining momentum in unique and different ways. In reflection, I envision that a new generation of LEADERS will emerge. A nice thought to hold 🙂 I look forward to reading your book.


    • Thanks for your comments and encouragement. I believe you are correct in your perspecitive on “followership” gaining momentum. Any thoughts you and others have on how to make that go faster are certainly welcome here.

  9. David,
    You are right on all counts. One of the findings in the book is exactly what you discerned: the principles apply to leaders and followers. In the section on how leaders lead in a Followership Culture, it is more evident that we are looking at behavioral principles.

  10. Nice reminder of a less trendy subject Don. Most of us, of course, are both leaders and followers. The principles you list, however, are pretty common to both roles. Maybe it’s behavioural principles rather that role archetypes that we should focus on more in our work?


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