A Celebration of Followership
By Ira Chaleff
Ira Chaleff is a former board member of the International Leadership Association and the author of The Courageous Follower and Intelligent Disobedience, among other titles. He is the founder of ILA’s Followership Learning Community and co-founder and co-facilitator of the Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter of Coming To The Table, a group dedicated to racial healing and justice. www.irachaleff.com
Special Note from Ira Chaleff: The ILA's annual global conference has been the one consistent platform for the exploration and discussion of followership in all its varieties. This year will be no exception. I will be participating and encourage you to register as well. If you have already registered or will do so by September 15th, as a thank you I have arranged for a “friends of the author” paperback edition of my new book to be available at a 50% discount until then. Click Here to Purchase.
What were those who research and write on leadership thinking about a quarter century ago? How was it similar or different to what you are thinking about now? What was on their minds that perhaps should be more central to your own thinking now?
You will find some surprising insights to these and other questions in a new book, without “leadership” in its title: A Celebration of Followership: The Story in Documents of The Courageous Follower and the Followership Community.
Just as one cannot meaningfully examine leadership without followership, the converse is equally true. While the book redresses the general imbalance that exists favoring leadership, it tells its story in the context of the interwoven dynamics of leadership and followership. The narrative is based on nearly 300 documents that are reproduced in full or in part in the book, presented in a coffee table (or classroom desk-copy) format. These documents are not footnotes. They are visual, readable evidence of the acceptance of followership as an integral, inseparable part of leadership studies and practice.
What Were They Thinking?
ILA founders and early principals include such luminaries as James MacGregor Burns, Larraine Matusak, Barbara Kellerman, Cynthia Cherrey, Georgia Sorenson, Gill Robinson Hickman, Edwin Hollander, Juana Bordas, Robert Kelley, Ron Heifetz, Joanne Ciulla, and others.
Insight into what they were considering is found in the archival records of the Kellogg Leadership Studies Project (KLSP), a grant-funded initiative that was a direct forerunner to the International Leadership Association. Segments of these archival records are reproduced in this book. When these eminent scholars and practitioners convened, they tellingly organized themselves into three focus groups:
- Transformational Leadership
- Leadership & Ethics
- Leadership & Followership
As the project progressed, a focus group was added on “Citizen Participation and Political Leadership,” which I would argue is a crucial application of leadership and followership, as recent political events amply demonstrate.
In the activity report to W.K. Kellogg Foundation on the 1994 – 1997 grant, this statement was made:
- Leaders matter – a lot.
- Followers matter as much.
- Leaders and followers working together can create change.
This is hardly a revolutionary statement yet, as has been observed by others, the current “leadership industry” too often treats followership as an object of leadership rather than as an interrelated, co-equal subject. Is this wise? The documents in this book argue it is not.
What else can we observe about this influential gathering of leadership scholars and practitioners and the groundwork they laid?
One happy observation is the strength with which women were represented in this gathering, their voices clearly heard and equally influential. A less sanguine observation is the paucity of BIPOC scholars and practitioners, and an absence of the intersectionality increasingly found in leadership studies today.
Swimming to the Future
It is valuable to review the historic record and take the measure of where the field has come from, where it is currently, and where it needs to go to make impactful, positive contributions to society.
Some will argue, correctly and effectively, for the need to move beyond Eurocentric, hierarchical, competitive, gendered models to more collaborative, multi-vocal, self-organizing, and compassionate forms of collective activity. These are evolutionary, exciting, and rich for exploration. New ways of leadership and new ways of followership play their roles in these configurations. Technological tools, in their multiple iterations, support a trend toward bottom-up, self-organizing, networked initiatives and influence.
Without swimming against this tide, I argue that as we seek new shores, we would do well not to forget the immense power of the seas we must cross to get there. The most cursory examination of global societal structures shows the considerable power of corporate hierarchies and the fearsome power of the State with its levers of policing, judiciary, penal, and military apparatus. We must take seriously the famous observation of Lord Acton that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I think you will agree that we are unlikely to get the heads of repressive regimes, or those moving in repressive directions, into our leadership programs. If that is so, what levers do we have to make a difference? It is here that I argue most strenuously for greater attention to the role of followers — at the level of the citizenry, up through the layers of bureaucratic function, and, when possible, into the inner circle of political advisors and counselors.
Progress, Challenges, and Resources
Let me bring this argument back to the book, which celebrates the increasing acceptance of followership and the impressive work of the growing community of followership scholars and practitioners. This community exists as an alliance of several bodies including the ILA Followership Community, the TeachingFollowersCourage.com graduates of courageous follower training programs, and the organizers of the recent Waterloo University global followership conference. I asked members of this alliance several questions. Their answers are illustrative to where we are, where we need to go, and how we might get there.
The first question was regarding their personal experience with increased acceptance for their work on followership. An answer from an ILA practitioner/scholar in Pakistan, Wajeeha Ghias, is encouraging. “I was able to introduce the Courageous Followership Concept at the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan in 2018, conducted a Courageous Followership workshop at the National Defence University (NDU) in 2019, and a course ‘Leadership and Followership’ at the NDU, resulting in five MS dissertations on Courageous Followership and other organization behaviors.” These are just some of the ways she has found fertile ground for these concepts, while still refining her approach for the more “threatening” aspects of the model concerning ‘challenging a leader’ or ‘taking a moral stand.’
The second question concerned the barriers encountered when introducing followership. Alain de Sales, an ILA scholar from Australia, reported “The barriers are that people still romanticize leaders and leadership… and still underestimate the role followers play in determining outcomes.” As part of the effort to transform this belief, Alain now heads up the TeachingFollowersCourage.com global group of scholars and practitioners. They share their experiences in creating acceptance for followership concepts and effectively conducting followership education and training.
The final question was an enquiry into how a resource such as A Celebration of Followership might assist their work? From Canada, ILA member Marc Hurwitz, co-author of Leadership is Half the Story and one of ILA’s Leadership Education Academy facilitators observed: “It’s all about spreading the message and making it seem normal to have an appreciation for followership. Resources that accomplish this are useful … not only for followership, but for leadership as well.” [For more information about Marc, read his recent ILA Interface article, "Followership Changed My Life"].
Example to Inform Your Research and Teaching
What kinds of documents will you find in A Celebration of Followership that might stimulate your own research or that of students you teach and mentor?
Let me give one of my favorite examples:
Several documents show the penetration of followership into the training of law enforcement officers in the U.S., particularly at the sergeant level. Given the enormity of the issues surrounding policing, race, and lethal force, here is one document that could open important lines of enquiry.
Notice that while 20% of the exam for those aspiring for promotion to sergeant is based on case law regarding the use of force and lethal force, 10% is based on knowledge of The Courageous Follower. I interpret this to mean that those who are entrusted with the use of lethal force must understand the constraints on its use, how to resist pressure to employ it inappropriately or illegally, and how to intervene when they witness other officers misusing it. Other documents in the book reinforce this throughout the California law enforcement community. These documents support the inclusion of followership models into law enforcement academic tracks. They also present a tantalizing prospect for research: Did the knowledge of courageous followership make any statistical difference in the misuse of lethal force in California versus other states in the U.S.? If so, what is to be learned from this? If not, what do we still need to learn and do to make a difference?
Larraine Matusek, one of the ILA founders, famously asked “Leadership for what?” We must ask the same question regarding followership.
My own interests and continuing research focus on leader-follower dynamics in the crucial political and governmental arenas. But to transform society, these dynamics must be addressed at all levels.
A case in point is the behavior learned in early childhood education concerning leading and following. A range of documents in this book touch on these — from an education consultant who trains principals and vice principals in courageous leadership and followership, to grade school teachers in Southeast Asia who use applications to support childhood safety, to a literature teacher who uses fiction to explore models of leading and following.
Another focal point is health and safety. The COVID-19 global crisis has made us aware of the role and value of frontline workers. Documents in the book show the value of followership education for nurses when they need to raise safety issues with physicians or hospital administrators. Another speaks to the application of ethical followership behaviors for school lunchroom personnel if they come under pressure to use questionable food products.
In other words, in every level of society, followership and leadership are intertwined and consequential. Leaders and followers are mutually responsible for positive outcomes of their collective activities and accountable for undesirable outcomes.
Still Romancing Leaders?
As ILA members — whether you are a researcher, educator, or practitioner — there are opportunities for you to introduce the mutuality of followership and leadership behaviors in service of common purpose and governing values. To do so, while still acting in the shadow of the romance of leadership, you need to be clear in your own thinking on the inseparability of followership and leadership in the processes of group performance and morality.
In the U.S., and to a degree globally, we are becoming aware of how implicit racial bias affects behavior and outcomes. It may be a tough message for members of a leadership association to hear, but I suggest that we must become aware of the implicit bias toward leaders. We must consciously overcome this if we are to be effective change agents. Viewing hundreds of documents showing the global breadth of followership’s impact will help us do this.
In a recent podcast interview, ILA president Cynthia Cherrey spoke presciently about the challenges facing the world in terms of receding democratic governance, ascendant authoritarianism, and the existential challenges of sustainability. In each of these domains, transformation requires better understanding of follower-leader dynamics. We need to reinforce the power of committed followers to influence leadership priorities and inoculate followers from the perfidy of false information that produces dangerous denial and behavior in the realms of public health, racist politics, and climate management efforts.
It is not enough to agree with the above statement; it must be operationalized in your own institution, business, classroom, workshop, and research agenda. In what may be an understatement, the words you will find at the conclusion to the book are, “Followership must never be an afterthought.” With this new resource, I pass the baton to you to run the next leg in the evolution of leading and following in the human race.