The leadership imperative

and the essence of followership


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School

United Kingdom


Many conversations about improvement, enhancement, governance, progress and the future inevitably resort to addressing leadership issues. Leadership is increasingly viewed as an essential life skill, a practical ability to guide other individuals, a team, an organisation, or even a country, towards a better future, an improved position or a defined outcome.

But where do we find examples of great leaders?

Traditionally, archetypal samples would emerge from either the political or the business arena, but in recent years both have been found wanting. Yet, as we face ever more complex and uncertain dilemmas and increasingly vexing wicked problems, there appears to be a greater need to identify and follow strong and powerful leaders.

What worked before?

Great leadership is sometimes measured in terms of the followers that it engenders. This may well be a dangerous idea. Former US Speaker of the House, Ohio Congressman John Boehner asserted back in 2015 that ‘a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk’. General George S. Patton had an even more direct approach in mind when he proclaimed ‘Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.’

Ironically, despite the plethora of publications exploring effective leadership, relatively little has been written about the role of effective followership. In a private conversation with a leading architect and chief executive of the infrastructure and construction part of the London 2012 Olympic Games, he expressed an exasperation that we teach leadership and tell people what they ought to be doing, but we hardly ever “teach” followership as we implicitly assume that following is easy, or well understood. According to Robert Kelley (1992) only 20% of the success or organisations is traced to the leader, while in practice 80% of the credit should be going to followers.

Kellerman (2008; p. xix) defines followers as ‘subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line”. Yet, followers are neither homogenous nor uniform. Kellerman’s book (2008) offers a fluid typology, which can be positioned along a spectrum, indicating the rank or level of engagement by followers, encompassing five main types:

  • Isolates: utterly detached and disinterested individuals who keep a low profile, rarely respond to leaders, resent interferences from above, and reinforce the status quo by default
  • Bystanders: observers who follow passively and let events unfold with little participation, while accepting control from above
  • Participants: engaged individuals who typically care about their organisation and support their leader with their effort or time when they agree with their vision and views
  • Activists: eager, energetic and deeply engaged individuals working for the cause and the leader
  • Die-hards: individuals displaying the highest levels of engagement with the organisation or their cause; all-consuming supporters exhibiting total and absolute engagement

Good followers therefore actively support effective and ethical leaders. It is thus expected that ‘good followers’ would also respond appropriately to bad leaders in the interest of the greater cause and the wider organisation. Kellerman’s chief concern is about mindless, or unquestioning followers, and their impact. Based on historical events, die-hards may agitate and activists may follow blindly and encourage participants to take part, while bystanders may simply allow events, however painful or harrowing, to take place, whilst others choose to ignore the entire scene. Historical precedents offer some credibility to the notion of mapping the level of engagement and participation (Kellerman, 2004). They also seem to suggest that bystanders and other participants may tolerate, or even embrace harmful actions with little, if any, questioning (see for example, Dalcher 2016 for a summary, or Zimbardo, 2007, for more detail). The direct implication is that followership needs to be taken more seriously; it also needs to encompass some sober responsibilities.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower and other publishers in the Routledge family.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2018). The leadership imperative and the essence of followership, PM World Journal, Volume VII, Issue X – October.  Available online at https://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/pmwj75-Oct2018-Dalcher-the-leadership-imperative.pdf


About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK




Darren Dalcher, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI SMIEEE SFHEA is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 200 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, A Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the British Academy of Management. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Member Advisory Group, the APM Research Advisory Group, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board.  He is the Academic Advisor and Consulting Editor for the next APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal.  He is the academic advisor and consulting editor for the next edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. He can be contacted at [email protected].

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.