In Praise of Followers

SECOND EDITION                                                            

Lawrence V. Suda, CEO

Palatine Group, Inc.

New York, USA


Leaders matter greatly.  But in searching so zealously for better leaders we tend to lose sight of the people these leaders lead. If you have not heard the term “followership” before, or not thought twice about it, you are not alone. It usually appears as a “non-word” when documents are spell-checked on the computer. It is not a new concept, just one that is often overlooked or forgotten.

Why followership is overlooked is an intriguing concept. Without followers, would there be leaders? Who would they lead? Who would become leaders if they were not first followers? Leadership and followership is a supportive bond: Leaders depend on followers and vice versa. Think about it:  Without his armies, after all, Napoleon was just a man with bold ambitions.  Organizations and projects succeed or fail partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on how well their followers follow. In the words of one renowned project leader: “Project bosses are not necessarily good leaders; team members are not necessarily effective followers.  Many bosses couldn’t lead a horse to water.  Many subordinates couldn’t follow a parade.  Some people avoid either role.  Others accept the role thrust upon them and perform it poorly.”

Leadership and followership are closely intertwined. Effective followers can shape productive leader behavior just as effective leaders develop employees into good followers. In this paper and presentation, we examine the important role of effective followership, including the nature of the followers’ role, different styles of followership that individuals express, and how effective followers behave. We also explore how followers develop personal potential to be more effective. We also look at what followers want form leaders and examine the leader’s role in developing effective followers through feedback and coaching.

Followership is important in the discussion of leadership for several reasons. Without followers there are no leaders. For any project or organization to succeed, there must be people who willingly and effectively follow just as there must be those who willingly and effectively lead. Leadership and followership are fundamental roles that individuals shift into and out of under various conditions. Everyone—leaders included—is a follower at one time or another. Indeed, most individuals, even those in positions of authority, have some kind of boss or supervisor. Individuals are more often followers than leaders.

Our concept about leadership is that it is primarily an influencing role. This means that in a position of authority, an individual influences others and is influenced by the actions and the attitudes of followers. In fact, one leadership theory is based on how managers adjust their behavior to fit situations, especially their followers. Thus, the nature of leader–follower relationships involves reciprocity, the mutual exchange of influence. The followers’ influence upon a leader can enhance the leader or accentuate the leader’s shortcomings.

Many of the competencies that are needed in leaders are the same qualities needed in effective followers. In addition to possessing initiative, independence, commitment to common goals, and courage, a follower can provide enthusiastic support of a leader, but not to the extent that a follower fails to challenge a leader who is unethical or threatens the values or objectives of the organization.    We believe that ineffective followers are as much to blame for poor performance, ethical and legal lapses within organizations as are poor and unethical leaders. Followers have a responsibility to speak up when leaders do things wrong.


To read entire paper (click here)

Editor’s note:  Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  This paper was originally presented at the PMI Global Congress North America 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA and included in the congress proceedings; republished here with author’s permission.

About the Author

Lawrence-V.-Sudaflag-usaLawrence V. Suda 

Palatine Group / Management Worlds

New York, USA 

Lawrence Suda is the CEO and an Officer at Palatine group/Management Worlds, Inc. with over 30 years project and program management consulting and training experience to numerous government and private sector companies. The Palatine Group/Management Worlds specializes in creating computer-based simulations for project management and leadership training. Larry’s career emphasis is on organization behavior, project management, operations management, strategic management and enterprise-wide project management for leading companies and government agencies throughout the world, including: NASA, US Navy, Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Energy, Health & Human Services , Agriculture, DAU and others and in the private sector to such companies as General Electric, Proctor & Gamble,  ALCOA, URS, Verizon, Boeing, Lockheed/Martin, Hewlett-Packard, Perot Systems, PPG Industries, United States Steel and others. Before founding Palatine Group/Management Worlds, Larry worked in the private and public sectors at the US Environmental Protection Agency and was an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland. Mr. Suda is a frequent speaker at PMI and IPMA Conferences in the United States and Europe and has led workshops for PMI’s Seminars World in various locations around the World. He is an adjunct professor at Drexel University teaching Global Project Leadership.  He can be contacted at [email protected].