Followership is (FINALLY) Equally Important

Jigsaw pieces on cement

Ruth Sims, an organizational development and communications professional, discusses the importance of fellowship. She is the co-author, with Frankie J. Weinberg, of “More than Follow the Leader: Expectations, Behaviors, Stability, and Change in a Co-Created Leadership Process.” published in Group & Organization Management.

hadshots of ruth sims and Frankie Weinberg
Ruth Sims, left, and Frankie Weinberg

No kid says, “I want to be a follower when I grow up.” The thought of following elicits strong reactions: disbelief, confusion, even embarrassment when someone confesses “I think I follow well…” Ambivalence about followership and the corresponding academic and practitioner emphasis on the importance of leadership prompted us to challenge assumptions about leading and following in the leadership process. Our research demonstrates followership as the often-missing piece in the leadership puzzle. Two stories highlight this perspective and our motivations for conducting this research. 

When Ruth’s children were young, they attended weekly circus classes where they learned technical skills such as juggling, tumbling, riding a unicycle. They also learned to work together, to combine ideas, to give and receive instruction. Participants learned to become aware of what was happening around them, to see risks for themselves and for others, and to speak up. Everyone had opportunities to perform, everyone was in the audience. Performers and audience members were active and mutual participants. This is much like how leading and following occur in workplace organizations. Everyone – regardless of role or position – can, and should, engage in both. Observations such as these inside and outside the workplace prompted Ruth to consider the crucial role that followership plays in organizational and leadership processes. These observations have had such an impact on her approach to organizational science that they stimulated her to research followership for her PhD.

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Frankie has dedicated much of his work in leadership to workplace mentoring relationships. A curious thing about mentorship literature, distinct from most leadership research, is that it tends to be overwhelmingly mentee-centric. Mentoring research focuses largely on outcomes such as mentees’ personal learning, satisfaction with mentoring, receipt of instrumental support, and career outcomes. This suggests an unusually follower-centric subset of leadership research. In his more recent research, Frankie has extended a co-constructionist approach to mentoring whereby the mentor (leader) and mentee (follower) work together to construct mentorship. When he partnered with Ruth for this project, he was attracted to the way in which it fits with and expands upon these constructionist foundations while serving as a launching point from which to more straightforwardly explore ways to generalize following and followership. 

Organizations need good followers and good leaders. Taking followership seriously challenges how we often think about workplace relationships and roles – perhaps why reactions to it are so strong. Our conceptual paper addresses some gaps in our knowledge about how leading and following expectations and behaviors interact on the foundation that followership and leadership must be researched as they are enacted – in tandem. To move toward a more complete understanding of leadership, we suggest how expectations of one’s self and of others influence leading and following behaviors and the leadership process. We outline a system through which the leadership process is understood as co-created and unfolding over time; our model accounts for both stability and change in partners’ expectations and behaviors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss this new approach to leadership process with Sage Ink’s readership. 

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Ruth Sims

Ruth Sims is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia and brings a research-based, expert understanding of followership, as well as skills in planning, making connections between people and ideas, engaging written and interpersonal communication, and the ability to listen. Her professional experience includes research, communications, project management, planning and review, providing strategic advice to senior managers, training design, workshop facilitation and mentoring, as well as leadership in professional and community groups.

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