Being an effective follower

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 Robert Kelley (1992), author of The Power of Followership, suggested that effective followers possess four common qualities:

  • They are self-managing and able to work effectively without direct supervision;
  • They are very committed to the organization’s goals;
  • They possess a high level of competence and mastery of their job skills; and
  • They act with a high level of credibility and ethics in their job performance.

In this Discussion, you will consider what it means to be a good follower and will consider your own effectiveness in that role.


To prepare for this Discussion:

  • Review this week’s Learning Resources on followership.
  • Consider your own strengths and areas for growth as a follower and how you might improve your followership skills.


Post a summary of what effective followership entails, including an analysis of your own effectiveness as a follower. Based on your reading and analysis of this week’s Learning Resources, as well as your own experience and observations, respond to the following:

  • Do you see yourself as an effective follower? Why or why not? Be sure to provide examples.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses, or shortcomings, in being an effective follower? What actions can you take to improve your followership skills?
  • How can being an effective follower translate to effective leadership? Hint: Your discussion should consider how the “followers” empower or enable the leader’s behaviors (for good or bad).
  • What recommendations would you make for leaders to better empower and support their followers to meet their goals?

Note: Be sure to justify your conclusions with supporting examples from your own personal experiences or those of others, from current events, and from the Learning Resources.

Refer to the Week 4 Discussion Rubric for specific grading elements and criteria. Your Instructor will use this grading rubric to assess your work.

Read some of your colleagues’ postings.|A350337252&v=2.1&it=r&sid=ebsco&asid=66bbcdaa

In Praise of Followers

by Robert E. Kelley

Reprint 88606

Harvard Business Review

This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

We are convinced that corporations succeed or
fail, compete or crumble, on the basis of how well
they are led. So we study great leaders of the past
and present and spend vast quantities of time and
money looking for leaders to hire and trying to cul-
tivate leadership in the employees we already have.

I have no argument with this enthusiasm. Lead-
ers matter greatly. But in searching so zealously for
better leaders we tend to lose sight of the people
these leaders will lead. Without his armies, after
all, Napoleon was just a man with grandiose ambi-
tions. Organizations stand or fall partly on the basis
of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on the
basis of how well their followers follow.

In 1987, declining profitability and intensified
competition for corporate clients forced a large
commercial bank on the east coast to reorganize its
operations and cut its work force. Its most sea-
soned managers had to spend most of their time in
the field working with corporate customers. Time
and energies were stretched so thin that one de-
partment head decided he had no choice but to del-
egate the responsibility for reorganization to his

staff people, who had recently had training in self-

Despite grave doubts, the department head set
them up as a unit without a leader, responsible to
one another and to the bank as a whole for writing
their own job descriptions, designing a training pro-
gram, determining criteria for performance evalua-
tions, planning for operational needs, and helping
to achieve overall organizational objectives.

They pulled it off. The bank’s officers were de-
lighted and frankly amazed that rank-and-file em-
ployees could assume so much responsibility so
successfully. In fact, the department’s capacity to
control and direct itself virtually without leader-
ship saved the organization months of turmoil, and

Copyright © 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988

Robert E. Kelley teaches at the Graduate School of In-
dustrial Administration, Carnegie Mellon University.
He is the author of Gold-Collar Worker: Harnessing the
Brainpower of the New Work Force (Addison-Wesley,
1985) and Consulting: The Complete Guide to a Prof-
itable Career (Scribner, rev. ed., 1986). The material in
this article is drawn from a book in progress, Follower-
ship–Leadership–Partnership. This is his second article
for HBR.

Not all corporate success is due to leadership…

In Praise of Followers
by Robert E. Kelley

This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

as the bank struggled to remain a major player in its
region, valuable management time was freed up to
put out other fires.

What was it these singular employees did? Given
a goal and parameters, they went where most de-
partments could only have gone under the hands-
on guidance of an effective leader. But these em-
ployees accepted the delegation of authority and
went there alone. They thought for themselves,
sharpened their skills, focused their efforts, put on a
fine display of grit and spunk and self-control. They
followed effectively.

To encourage this kind of effective following in
other organizations, we need to understand the na-
ture of the follower’s role. To cultivate good follow-
ers, we need to understand the human qualities
that allow effective followership to occur.

The Role of Follower
Bosses are not necessarily good leaders; subordi-

nates are not necessarily effective followers. Many
bosses couldn’t lead a horse to water. Many subor-
dinates couldn’t follow a parade. Some people avoid
either role. Others accept the role thrust upon them
and perform it badly.

At different points in their careers, even at differ-
ent times of the working day, most managers play
both roles, though seldom equally well. After all,
the leadership role has the glamour and attention.
We take courses to learn it, and when we play it
well we get applause and recognition. But the reali-
ty is that most of us are more often followers than
leaders. Even when we have subordinates, we still
have bosses. For every committee we chair, we sit
as a member on several others.

So followership dominates our lives and organi-
zations, but not our thinking, because our preoc-

cupation with leadership keeps us from consider-
ing the nature and the importance of the follower.

What distinguishes an effective from an ineffec-
tive follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-
reliant participation – without star billing – in the
pursuit of an organizational goal. Effective follow-
ers differ in their motivations for following and in
their perceptions of the role. Some choose follower-
ship as their primary role at work and serve as team
players who take satisfaction in helping to further a
cause, an idea, a product, a service, or, more rarely, a
person. Others are leaders in some situations but
choose the follower role in a particular context.
Both these groups view the role of follower as legiti-
mate, inherently valuable, even virtuous.

Some potentially effective followers derive moti-
vation from ambition. By proving themselves in the
follower’s role, they hope to win the confidence of
peers and superiors and move up the corporate lad-
der. These people do not see followership as attrac-
tive in itself. All the same, they can become good
followers if they accept the value of learning the
role, studying leaders from a subordinate’s perspec-
tive, and polishing the followership skills that will
always stand them in good stead.

Understanding motivations and perceptions is
not enough, however. Since followers with different
motivations can perform equally well, I examined
the behavior that leads to effective and less effective
following among people committed to the organiza-
tion and came up with two underlying behavioral
dimensions that help to explain the difference.

One dimension measures to what degree follow-
ers exercise independent, critical thinking. The oth-
er ranks them on a passive/active scale. The result-
ing diagram identifies five followership patterns.

Sheep are passive and uncritical, lacking in initia-
tive and sense of responsibility. They perform the
tasks given them and stop. Yes People are a livelier
but equally unenterprising group. Dependent on a
leader for inspiration, they can be aggressively defer-
ential, even servile. Bosses weak in judgment and
self-confidence tend to like them and to form al-
liances with them that can stultify the organization.

Alienated Followers are critical and independent
in their thinking but passive in carrying out their
role. Somehow, sometime, something turned them
off. Often cynical, they tend to sink gradually into
disgruntled acquiescence, seldom openly opposing
a leader’s efforts. In the very center of the diagram
we have Survivors, who perpetually sample the
wind and live by the slogan “better safe than sorry.”
They are adept at surviving change.

In the upper right-hand corner, finally, we have
Effective Followers, who think for themselves and

This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

carry out their duties and assignments with energy
and assertiveness. Because they are risk takers, self-
starters, and independent problem solvers, they get
consistently high ratings from peers and many su-
periors. Followership of this kind can be a positive
and acceptable choice for parts or all of our lives – a
source of pride and fulfillment.

Effective followers are well-balanced and respon-
sible adults who can succeed without strong leader-
ship. Many followers believe they offer as much
value to the organization as leaders do, especially in
project or task-force situations. In an organization
of effective followers, a leader tends to be more an
overseer of change and progress than a hero. As or-
ganizational structures flatten, the quality of those
who follow will become more and more important.
As Chester I. Barnard wrote 50 years ago in The
Functions of the Executive, “The decision as to
whether an order has authority or not lies with the
person to whom it is addressed, and does not reside
in ‘persons of authority’ or those who issue orders.”

The Qualities of Followers
Effective followers share a number of essential

1. They manage themselves well.
2. They are committed to the organization and to

a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves.
3. They build their competence and focus their

efforts for maximum impact.
4. They are courageous, honest, and credible.

Self-Management. Paradoxically, the key to being
an effective follower is the ability to think for one-
self – to exercise control and independence and to
work without close supervision. Good followers are
people to whom a leader can safely delegate respon-
sibility, people who anticipate needs at their own
level of competence and authority.

Another aspect of this paradox is
that effective followers see them-
selves – except in terms of line re-
sponsibility – as the equals of the
leaders they follow. They are more
apt to openly and unapologetically
disagree with leadership and less
likely to be intimidated by hierarchy
and organizational structure. At the same time,
they can see that the people they follow are, in turn,
following the lead of others, and they try to appreci-
ate the goals and needs of the team and the organi-
zation. Ineffective followers, on the other hand, buy
into the hierarchy and, seeing themselves as sub-
servient, vacillate between despair over their seem-

ing powerlessness and attempts to manipulate lead-
ers for their own purposes. Either their fear of pow-
erlessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – for
themselves and often for their work units as well –
or their resentment leads them to undermine the
team’s goals.

Self-managed followers give their organizations a
significant cost advantage because they eliminate
much of the need for elaborate supervisory control
systems that, in any case, often lower morale. In
1985, a large midwestern bank redesigned its person-
nel selection system to attract self-managed work-
ers. Those conducting interviews began to look for
particular types of experience and capacities – initia-
tive, teamwork, independent thinking of all kinds –
and the bank revamped its orientation program to
emphasize self-management. At the executive level,
role playing was introduced into the interview pro-
cess: how you disagree with your boss, how you pri-
oritize your in-basket after a vacation. In the three
years since, employee turnover has dropped dramati-
cally, the need for supervisors has decreased, and
administrative costs have gone down.

Of course not all leaders and managers like hav-
ing self-managing subordinates. Some would rather
have sheep or yes people. The best that good follow-
ers can do in this situation is to protect themselves
with a little career self-management – that is, to
stay attractive in the marketplace. The qualities
that make a good follower are too much in demand
to go begging for long.

Commitment. Effective followers are committed
to something – a cause, a product, an organization,
an idea – in addition to the care of their own lives
and careers. Some leaders misinterpret this com-
mitment. Seeing their authority acknowledged,
they mistake loyalty to a goal for loyalty to them-
selves. But the fact is that many effective followers

see leaders merely as coadventurers on a worthy
crusade, and if they suspect their leader of flagging
commitment or conflicting motives they may just
withdraw their support, either by changing jobs or
by contriving to change leaders.

The opportunities and the dangers posed by this
kind of commitment are not hard to see. On the one


4 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988

Self-confident followers
see colleagues as allies and

leaders as equals.

This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

hand, commitment is contagious. Most people like
working with colleagues whose hearts are in their
work. Morale stays high. Workers who begin to
wander from their purpose are jostled back into
line. Projects stay on track and on time. In addition,
an appreciation of commitment and the way it
works can give managers an extra tool with which
to understand and channel the energies and loyal-
ties of their subordinates.

On the other hand, followers who are strongly
committed to goals not consistent with the goals of
their companies can produce destructive results.
Leaders having such followers can even lose control
of their organizations.

A scientist at a computer company cared deeply
about making computer technology available to the
masses, and her work was outstanding. Since her
goal was in line with the company’s goals, she had
few problems with top management. Yet she saw
her department leaders essentially as facilitators of
her dream, and when managers worked at cross-
purposes to that vision, she exercised all of her con-
siderable political skills to their detriment. Her im-
mediate supervisors saw her as a thorn in the side,
but she was quite effective in furthering her cause

because she saw eye to eye with
company leaders. But what if her
vision and the company’s vision
had differed?

Effective followers temper their
loyalties to satisfy organizational
needs – or they find new organiza-
tions. Effective leaders know how
to channel the energies of strong
commitment in ways that will
satisfy corporate goals as well as a
follower’s personal needs.

Competence and Focus. On the
grounds that committed incompe-
tence is still incompetence, effec-
tive followers master skills that
will be useful to their organiza-
tions. They generally hold higher
performance standards than the
work environment requires, and
continuing education is second
nature to them, a staple in their
professional development.

Less effective followers expect
training and development to come
to them. The only education they
acquire is force-fed. If not sent to a
seminar, they don’t go. Their com-
petence deteriorates unless some

leader gives them parental care and attention.
Good followers take on extra work gladly, but

first they do a superb job on their core responsibili-
ties. They are good judges of their own strengths
and weaknesses, and they contribute well to teams.
Asked to perform in areas where they are poorly
qualified, they speak up. Like athletes stretching
their capacities, they don’t mind chancing failure if
they know they can succeed, but they are careful to
spare the company wasted energy, lost time, and
poor performance by accepting challenges that
coworkers are better prepared to meet. Good fol-
lowers see coworkers as colleagues rather than

At the same time, effective followers often
search for overlooked problems. A woman on a
new product development team discovered that
no one was responsible for coordinating engineer-
ing, marketing, and manufacturing. She worked
out an interdepartmental review schedule that
identified the people who should be involved at
each stage of development. Instead of burdening
her boss with yet another problem, this woman
took the initiative to present the issue along with
a solution.

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988 5

Some Followers Are More Effective

Independent, Critical Thinking

Dependent, Uncritical Thinking





Yes PeopleSheep


This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

Another woman I interviewed described her ef-
forts to fill a dangerous void in the company she
cared about. Young managerial talent in this manu-
facturing corporation had traditionally made ca-
reers in production. Convinced that foreign compe-
tition would alter the shape of the industry, she
realized that marketing was a neglected area. She
took classes, attended seminars, and read widely.
More important, she visited customers to get feed-
back about her company’s and competitors’ prod-
ucts, and she soon knew more about the product’s
customer appeal and market position than any of
her peers. The extra competence did wonders for
her own career, but it also helped her company
weather a storm it had not seen coming.

Courage. Effective followers are credible, honest,
and courageous. They establish themselves as inde-
pendent, critical thinkers whose knowledge and
judgment can be trusted. They give credit where
credit is due, admitting mistakes and sharing suc-
cesses. They form their own views and ethical stan-
dards and stand up for what they believe in.

Insightful, candid, and fearless, they can keep lead-
ers and colleagues honest and informed. The other
side of the coin of course is that they can also cause
great trouble for a leader with questionable ethics.

Jerome LiCari, the former R&D director at Beech-
Nut, suspected for several years that the apple con-
centrate Beech-Nut was buying from a new supplier
at 20% below market price was adulterated. His
department suggested switching suppliers, but top
management at the financially strapped company
put the burden of proof on R&D.

By 1981, LiCari had accumulated strong evidence
of adulteration and issued a memo recommending

a change of supplier. When he got no response, he
went to see his boss, the head of operations. Ac-
cording to LiCari, he was threatened with dismissal
for lack of team spirit. LiCari then went to the pres-
ident of Beech-Nut, and when that, too, produced
no results, he gave up his three-year good-soldier
effort, followed his conscience, and resigned. His
last performance evaluation praised his expertise
and loyalty, but said his judgment was “colored by
naiveté and impractical ideals.”

In 1986, Beech-Nut and LiCari’s two bosses were
indicted on several hundred counts of conspiracy to
commit fraud by distributing adulterated apple
juice. In November 1987, the company pleaded
guilty and agreed to a fine of $2 million. In February
of this year, the two executives were found guilty
on a majority of the charges. The episode cost
Beech-Nut an estimated $25 million and a 20% loss
of market share. Asked during the trial if he had
been naive, LiCari said, “I guess I was. I thought
apple juice should be made from apples.”

Is LiCari a good follower? Well, no, not to his dis-
honest bosses. But yes, he is almost certainly the
kind of employee most companies want to have:
loyal, honest, candid with his superiors, and thor-
oughly credible. In an ethical company involved
unintentionally in questionable practices, this kind
of follower can head off embarrassment, expense,
and litigation.

Cultivating Effective Followers
You may have noticed by now that the qualities

that make effective followers are, confusingly
enough, pretty much the same qualities found in
some effective leaders. This is no mere coinci-
dence, of course. But the confusion underscores an
important point. If a person has initiative, self-con-
trol, commitment, talent, honesty, credibility, and
courage, we say, “Here is a leader!” By definition, a
follower cannot exhibit the qualities of leadership.
It violates our stereotype.

But our stereotype is ungenerous and wrong. Fol-
lowership is not a person but a role, and what dis-
tinguishes followers from leaders is not intelli-
gence or character but the role they play. As I

pointed out at the beginning of this
article, effective followers and effec-
tive leaders are often the same peo-
ple playing different parts at differ-
ent hours of the day.

In many companies, the leadership
track is the only road to career suc-
cess. In almost all companies, leader-
ship is taught and encouraged while

followership is not. Yet effective followership is a
prerequisite for organizational success. Your orga-
nization can take four steps to cultivate effective
followers in your work force.

1. Redefining Followership and Leadership. Our
stereotyped but unarticulated definitions of leader-
ship and followership shape our expectations when
we occupy either position. If a leader is defined as re-
sponsible for motivating followers, he or she will


6 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988

Courageous followers
can keep a leader honest –
and out of trouble.

This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

likely act toward followers as if they needed motiva-
tion. If we agree that a leader’s job is to transform
followers, then it must be a follower’s job to provide
the clay. If followers fail to need transformation, the
leader looks ineffective. The way we define the roles
clearly influences the outcome of the interaction.

Instead of seeing the leadership role as superior to
and more active than the role of the follower, we
can think of them as equal but different activities.
The operative definitions are roughly these: people
who are effective in the leader role have the vision
to set corporate goals and strategies, the interper-
sonal skills to achieve consensus, the verbal capaci-
ty to communicate enthusiasm to large and diverse
groups of individuals, the organizational talent to
coordinate disparate efforts, and, above all, the de-
sire to lead.

People who are effective in the follower role have
the vision to see both the forest and the trees, the
social capacity to work well with others, the
strength of character to flourish without heroic sta-
tus, the moral and psychological balance to pursue
personal and corporate goals at no cost to either,

and, above all, the desire to participate in a team ef-
fort for the accomplishment of some greater com-
mon purpose.

This view of leadership and followership can be
conveyed to employees directly and indirectly – in
training and by example. The qualities that make
good followers and the value the company places on
effective followership can be articulated in explicit
follower training. Perhaps the best way to convey
this message, however, is by example. Since each of
us plays a follower’s part at least from time to time,
it is essential that we play it well, that we con-
tribute our competence to the achievement of team
goals, that we support the team leader with candor
and self-control, that we do our best to appreciate
and enjoy the role of quiet contribution to a larger,
common cause.

2. Honing Followership Skills. Most organiza-
tions assume that leadership has to be taught but
that everyone knows how to follow. This assump-
tion is based on three faulty premises: (1) that lead-
ers are more important than followers, (2) that fol-

lowing is simply doing what you are told to
do, and (3) that followers inevitably draw
their energy and aims, even their talent,
from the leader. A program of follower
training can correct this misapprehension
by focusing on topics like:

Improving independent, critical thinking.
Disagreeing agreeably.
Building credibility.
Aligning personal and organizational

goals and commitments.
Acting responsibly toward the organiza-

tion, the leader, coworkers, and oneself.
Similarities and differences between

leadership and followership roles.
Moving between the two roles with ease.

3. Performance Evaluation and Feed-
back. Most performance evaluations in-
clude a section on leadership skills. Fol-
lowership evaluation would include items
like the ones I have discussed. Instead of
rating employees on leadership qualities
such as self-management, independent
thinking, originality, courage, compe-
tence, and credibility, we can rate them on
these same qualities in both the leadership
and followership roles and then evaluate
each individual’s ability to shift easily
from the one role to the other. A variety of
performance perspectives will help most

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988 7
This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

people understand better how well they play their
various organizational roles.

Moreover, evaluations can come from peers, sub-
ordinates, and self as well as from supervisors. The
process is simple enough: peers and subordinates
who come into regular or significant contact with
another employee fill in brief, periodic question-
naires where they rate the individual on follower-
ship qualities. Findings are then summarized and
given to the employee being rated.

4. Organizational Structures That Encourage
Followership. Unless the value of good following is
somehow built into the fabric of the organization,
it is likely to remain a pleasant conceit to which

everyone pays occasional lip service but no dues.
Here are four good ways to incorporate the concept
into your corporate culture:
� In leaderless groups, all members assume equal
responsibility for achieving goals. These are usually
small task forces of people who can work together
under their own supervision. However hard it is to
imagine a group with more than one leader, groups
with none at all can be highly productive if their
members have the qualities of effective followers.
� Groups with temporary and rotating leadership
are another possibility. Again, such groups are prob-
ably best kept small and the rotation fairly fre-
quent, although the notion might certainly be ex-
tended to include the administration of a small
department for, say, six-month terms. Some of
these temporary leaders will be less effective than
others, of course, and some may be weak indeed,
which is why critics maintain that this structure is
inefficient. Why not let the best leader lead? Why
suffer through the tenure of less effective leaders?
There are two reasons. First, experience of the lead-
ership role is essential to the education of effective
followers. Second, followers learn that they must

compensate for ineffective leadership by exercising
their skill as good followers. Rotating leader or not,
they are bound to be faced with ineffective leader-
ship more than once in their careers.
� Delegation to the lowest level is a third tech-
nique for cultivating good followers. Nordstrom’s,
the Seattle-based department store chain, gives
each sales clerk responsibility for servicing and sat-
isfying the customer, including the authority to
make refunds without supervisory approval. This
kind of delegation makes even people at the lowest
levels responsible for their own decisions and for
thinking independently about their work.
� Finally, companies can use rewards to underline
the importance of good followership. This is not as

easy as it sounds. Managers depen-
dent on yes people and sheep for ego
gratification will not leap at the idea
of extra rewards for the people who
make them most uncomfortable. In
my research, I have found that effec-
tive followers get mixed treatment.
About half the time, their contribu-
tions lead to substantial rewards.

The other half of the time they are punished by
their superiors for exercising judgment, taking
risks, and failing to conform. Many managers insist
that they want independent subordinates who can
think for themselves. In practice, followers who
challenge their bosses run the risk of getting fired.

In today’s flatter, leaner organization, companies
will not succeed without the kind of people who
take pride and satisfaction in the role of supporting
player, doing the less glorious work without fan-
fare. Organizations that want the benefits of effec-
tive followers must find ways of rewarding them,
ways of bringing them into full partnership in the
enterprise. Think of the thousands of companies
that achieve adequate performance and lackluster
profits with employees they treat like second-class
citizens. Then imagine for a moment the power of
an organization blessed with fully engaged, fully
energized, fully appreciated followers.

Author’s note: I am indebted to Pat Chew for her contributions
to this article. I also want to thank Janet Nordin, Howard Seck-
ler, Paul Brophy, Stuart Mechlin, Ellen Mechlin, and Syed
Shariq for their critical input.

Reprint 88606


8 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1988

Groups with many leaders can
be chaos. Groups with none can
be very productive.

This document is authorized for use only by Yaina Delgado in Dynamic Leadership-Summer 2023 at Walden University (Canvas), 2023.

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