Followership: pros and cons

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The importance of followership to leadership has been established in research and literature. According to Agho (2009), followership involves being proactive and competent in supporting leaders to attain the goals of an organization. It includes considerations on the role of the follower and their views on how their behaviour and actions towards leaders affect the achievement of organizational goals. Therefore, understanding leadership cannot be separated from understanding followership (Carsten et al., 2010).  Besides, Bligh (2011) argues that being a leader or a follower are not exclusive roles but are dependent on each other. The author mentions that leadership depends on the availability of followership. This analysis presents a discussion of followership including the pros and cons of different styles of followership.

One of the established researchers in the field of followership, Robert E. Kelley, defines followership in two broad dimensions: independent critical thinker or dependent uncritical thinker and passive or active followers (Kelley, 2008). Independent critical thinkers consider different options and contribute to the decision-making process of the organization without following the ideas of the leader blindly. On the other hand, the dependent uncritical thinker supports the views of the leader in the organization without critically going over them to make their own decisions. The second category of followership, the active follower is a full participant in the organization while the passive follower relies on others to act and does not initiate actions but is under constant supervision (Bligh, 2011; Kelly, 2008).

Based on these two dimensions, Kelly (2008) defined five followership styles: the star/exemplary follower, the yes people/conformist follower, the pragmatic follower, the alienated follower, and the sheep/ passive followers. The advantage of the star/exemplary follower is that he or she is a proactive critical thinker who can enhance the achievement of organisational goals through influence the decisions made by the leader. Star followers strengthen problem-solving and take initiatives in the organization (Carsten et al., 2010). Nevertheless, Crossman and Crossman (2011) postulate that star or exemplary followers engaging in extreme critical thinking can be troublesome and impediments to the decisions of the leader.

The yes people/conformist followers are argued by Kelly (2008) to be active in the organisation but dependent on the decisions and ideas of the leader. These followers act but do not contribute to the decision process of the organisation. Their character is that of team players who avoid conflict with their leaders (Crossman & Crossman, 2011). Unlike conformist and exemplary followers, alienated followers are not active participants in the organisation. However, alienated followers are independent critical thinkers who can formulate solutions and strategies for the organisation. Their weakness is that they do not contribute or share their ideas with their leaders. Kelly (2008) argues that alienated followers can be an obstacle to the achievement of visions and goals in the organisation since they are more interested in objecting the decisions of the leader.

The fourth style of followership is the sheep or passive followers who are neither active nor independent critical thinkers. The advantage of passive followers is that they carry out the decisions of their leaders without opposition, which can work towards meeting the expectations of the organisation. However, passive followers contribute little towards strategic decisions for the organisation and can demotivate others in the organisation (Bligh, 2011; Carsten et al., 2010; Kelly, 2008). The final style of followership is the pragmatic follower, who can be active or passive, independent thinker or dependent uncritical thinker. These followers help to maintain balance in the organisation. Nevertheless, pragmatic followers do not initiate or develop solutions to organisational problems (Crossman & Crossman, 2011; Kelly, 2008).

Followership is essential in leadership as it helps to enlighten on the relationship between the follower and the leaders and how this aids in achieving the goal of the organisation. This discussion has established the five different followership styles, as well as their advantages and disadvantages to the organisation. Also, the two dimensions of followership have been explored and include independent critical thinker or dependent uncritical thinker and active or passive followers. Having an understanding of followership can help both leaders and followers in an organisation define their role in the attainment of the organisational goal.

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  1. Agho, A.O., 2009. Perspectives of senior-level executives on effective followership and leadership. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 16(2), pp.159-166.
  2. Bligh, M.C., 2011. Followership and follower-centered approaches. The SAGE handbook of leadership, pp.425-436.
  3. Carsten, M.K., Uhl-Bien, M., West, B.J., Patera, J.L. and McGregor, R., 2010. Exploring social constructions of followership: A qualitative study. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3), pp.543-562.
  4. Crossman, B. and Crossman, J., 2011. Conceptualising followership–a review of the literature. Leadership, 7(4), pp.481-497.
  5. Kelley, R.E., 2008. Rethinking followership. The art of followership: How great followers create great leaders and organizations, pp.5-16.
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