Perspectives of Senior-Level Executives on Effective Followership and Leadership

Article excerpt

Using a three-page questionnaire administered to a sample of 302 senior-level executives, this study examined the perceptions of executives on the distinguishing characteristics of effective leaders and followers. Most of the characteristics associated with effective leaders were perceived to be different from those associated with effective followers. A significant number of the respondents agreed that (a) leadership and followership are interrelated roles; (b) leadership and followership skills have to be learned; (c) effective leaders and effective followers can influence work performance, quality of work output, satisfaction and morale, and cohesiveness of work groups; and (d) researchers have not devoted enough attention to the study of followership.

Keywords: leadership; followership; characteristics; attributes


Followership, often described as the ability of individuals to competently and proactively follow the instructions and support the efforts of their superior to achieve organizational goals, has remained an undervalued and underappreciated concept among management development practitioners and researchers. Whereas there is a plethora of articles in academic literature on leadership characteristics, traits, qualities, selection, training, development, and evaluation, much less attention has been given to the study of the importance and significance of effective followership (Brown & Thornborrow, 1996). A review of recently published management and organizational textbooks indicates that the concept of followership is still not well emphasized in business education and management development programs.

The lack of research and appreciation of followership relative to leadership can be attributed to four interrelated factors. First, the term followership is generally associated with negative and unflattering words such as passive, low status, unimaginative, and inability to make independent judgment (Alcorn, 1992). Followership is seldom presented as an important character trait for any person who aspires to lead others. Second, the traditional hierarchical relationship between leaders and their followers in bureaucratic organizations has distorted the interactive effects of leadership-followership on organizational growth, stability, and survival. The predominant view of leadership behavior in the stereotypical leader-follower exchange relationship is one in which leaders provide direction, support, and reinforcement and followers simply follow through on specified or expected levels of performance (Avolio & Bass, 1988; House & Shamir, 1993). Third, professional development programs pay less attention to developing effective follower cultures and skills because of the erroneous assumption that people know instinctively how to follow. This view may explain why professional development programs have been slow in advocating for a shift in organizational culture to one that promotes effective followership and advocates for culture in which individuals can seamlessly transition to effective leadership while simultaneously fulfilling their followership roles in support of their superiors. Finally, academic business programs and professional development programs have not been proactive in documenting how characteristics and traits of effective followers are different from those exhibited by ineffective followers.

Murphy (1990) argued that effective followers have the capacity to "think for themselves and have initiative, are well balanced and responsible, manage themselves well and can succeed without a strong leader" (p. 68). Consistent with Murphy's argument, Alcorn (1992) highlighted essential skills of effective followers to include cooperation, flexibility, integrity, initiative, and problem solving. In an attempt to further elaborate on the distinguishing characteristics of effective followers, Kelley (1992) presented two broad dimensions (i. …