In Praise of Followers

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 cultivate leadership in the employees we already have.

Leaders 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 ambitions.

Most organizations assume that leadership has to be taught but that everyone knows how to follow. This assumption is based on three faulty premises:

  1. that leaders are more important than followers,
  2. that following 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.

Kelley (1988) divided followers into five categories:

  1. Sheep are passing and uncritical, lacking in initiative and sense of responsibility. They perform the tasks given them and stop.
  2. Yes People are a livelier but equally unenterprising group. Dependent on a leader for inspiration, they can be aggressively deferential, even servile. Bosses weak in judgment and self-confidence tend to like them and to form alliances with them that can stultify the organization.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. In the upper right-hand corner, finally, we have Effective Followers, who think for themselves and 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 superiors. 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 share a number of essential qualities:

  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.


Kelley, R. E. (1988). In Praise of Followers. Harvard Business Review.