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Barbara Kellerman
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Barbara Kellerman

Barbara Kellerman is on the faculty of at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author, most recently, of Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, and Why It Matters and Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders.

Bottom's Up: Why Followers Matter

Editor's Note: Starting today, Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman will comment each week on "followership," a concept she introduces in her post today.

Leaders matter. But - Obama-mania notwithstanding - they don't matter as much as we think. Moreover they matter less now than they ever did before. Our fixation on leaders is not only misguided, it's downright mistaken. Leader-centrism confuses or denies the complexities of history, which include a cast of characters whom I call followers.

Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors. Though we associate the word "follower" with weakness, timorousness, and even failure - every one wants to be a leader, no one wants to be a follower - in fact leaders must, by definition, have at least one follower. And just as we tend to overestimate the power of leaders, so we usually underestimate the power of followers.

Consider the war in Gaza. In times past, decisions in this part of the world were made by leaders - by kings, presidents, and prime ministers from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S., as well as the heads of the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But now the collective capacity of these leaders to call the shots is diminished. They are hemmed in on all sides not only by each other, but also by large numbers of followers turned protesters, who in large numbers of places demand to be heard.

Overwhelmingly these protesters in the Middle East are against Israel and for Hamas (or, more broadly, for the Palestinians), and in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia, they are taking on those ostensibly in charge, obliging them to be less conciliatory and more militant. While the situation particularly constrains Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the problem is widespread across the region, to the point where ordinary people, fueled by anger against Israel, limit the policy options of their leaders.

Nor is public outrage confined to countries most directly affected. Twenty thousand people recently protested in London, another 20,000 across Germany, 30,000 in Paris, thousands more in places such as Oslo and Stockholm, not to speak of the near three quarters of a million who took to the street in Istanbul. This is not to say the mob rules, but to point out that people without obvious sources of power, authority or influence threaten their leaders.

The arc of human history has in fact favored followers over leaders, most strikingly during the Enlightenment, when democratic theory gradually advanced, and again after the American and French Revolutions, with the sudden advent of democratic practice in the form of the overthrow of rulers by the ruled. Now, in the 21st century, for a range of reasons that include changes in culture and technology, and generational shifts as well, followers are becoming stronger and leaders weaker.

Each week this blog will explore and expose the power of followers. Leaders will not of course be excluded from the discussion. But nor will they take center stage. They will be obliged to do here what they do in real life - share the spotlight with those who in theory, but not necessarily in practice, are much less powerful than they.


By Barbara Kellerman

 |  January 13, 2009; 2:25 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"'War on terror' was wrong" says UK foreign secretary. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/15/david-miliband-war-terror) Finally, even the closest ally of the US ceases to be a follower of this criminal regime. What currage - five days before it resigns...

Posted by: blexie1 | January 15, 2009 3:18 AM
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This blog is about an important topic. I’ve dealt with followers and followership in my political consulting for years.

Yes, there are strong followers and weak followers. An example of weak followers need not be as unusual as Germans not standing up to Hitler; that might have been especially hard to do in some circumstances. We should make ourselves aware of weak (and strong) followership in our everyday experience. We often see it in politics, where weakness and passivity of followers allow wrong things to happen. Besides politics, we see it in boardrooms, in families, and elsewhere.

There are dynamics of followership that can be observed and used. For example, a weak leader who solidifies power with weak supporters gains relative strength. An example might be a mediocre Member of Congress who has over years built a base of support of mediocre local officials, politicians, and large numbers of the community leadership who don’t want to risk their work or business helping a challenger. That’s a reason why incumbents sometimes beat a good challenger. (It’s not just about campaign money.)

A good exercise is to have clients (or students) analyze both the leadership and followership qualities of individuals in a group such as the 2008 Presidential candidates in their debates. This also helps us to understand the qualities of leadership in choosing a candidate. A candidate (or anyone) can be a leader in some respects and a follower in others. It’s often a matter of “in which respects” that helps you to make your decision. (I don’t want here to get into what I observed in 2008 because it might divert your attention.:)

Kudos to Barbara Kellerman. I add this specific to her blog today. She says, “This is not to say the mob rules, but to point out that people without obvious sources of power, authority or influence threaten their leaders.” Actually, the sources of power are often obvious, which gets us to another exciting dynamic of leadership/followership: when the roles reverse.

Tom Diffenbach

Posted by: diffenbach | January 15, 2009 3:12 AM
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