Followers and Leaders

Closing The Gap … Between Leaders And Followers

November 20, 2012 • LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development, STRATEGY & MANAGEMENT, Talent Management

By Barbara Kellerman

What accounts for the fact that leaders have been descendant and followers ascendant? Where to begin?

Once upon a time, long, long ago, leaders ruled the earth. The world was filled with autocracies – tribes, groups, and, finally, nation states – not democracies, in which it was presumed that leaders led and the rest followed. Leading, then, used to be quite simple. Not that leaders in times past did not face their own particular challenges – they did, including challenges from others hell bent on overthrowing them. What they did not generally need to trouble themselves with, however, were the great unwashed, the masses, their followers.

Of course smart leaders were aware of their followers – they had an interest in their well-being. Even so consummate a pragmatist as Machiavelli believed it was important to keep plain people sufficiently satisfied. In his classic of the leadership literature, The Prince, Machiavelli instructs his royal patron to take into account his subjects, to, in so far as possible, treat them well. A prince, Machiavelli wrote, should show himself a lover of virtues and he should recognize virtue in others. Moreover, he should enable his subjects to “follower their pursuits quietly” and, at “suitable times of the year,” keep them “occupied with festivals and spectacles.” Further, the prince should “make himself an example of humanity and munificence” – because it is in his own interest to give as well as to take.1

Withal, The Prince is a product of its time – a time in which the divine right of kings had currency, and in which it was widely presumed that rulers would rule, and the rest would acquiesce to being ruled. But, things change. In fact, one of my own contributions to the discussion of leadership in the 21st century has been to place it in an historical context, to point out that, like everything else, leadership and followership evolve over time, from what they were into something quite different. In this case the trajectory – from past to present – is clear. Leaders are weaker than they were, and followers are stronger. This is not to say that leaders are without power, authority, or influence. Nor is it to claim that some day soon the meek shall inherit the earth. Rather it is to surface a truism that in the contemporary leadership literature is ignored altogether, as if it were irrelevant or unimportant, which decidedly it is not. It is to point out that over the last several hundred years, certainly since the American and French revolutions, patterns of dominance and deference have changed – not a little but a lot – and that these changes continue apace, into the present and, likely, into the future.2

What accounts for the fact that leaders have been descendant and followers ascendant? Where to begin? With the advent of the printing press – which enabled the expanded dissemination of information and ideas? With Martin Luther’s challenge to the overweening power and authority of the Catholic Church? With the Glorious Revolution – in which a knot of Parliamentarians took on the English King? Here I will pause only to stress the role of the Enlightenment, that watershed period in human history characterized above all by the idea that power is not the private preserve of a privileged few. Rather it is a precious resource that should be shared by the governors with the governed.

Political philosophers such as Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Locke (among others) were seminal to this seismic shift. For example, John Locke’s argument for the right to hold private property; his conception of social contract theory, which claimed that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed; and his insistence that consent be applied to the leader as well as to the led – all were breakthroughs. As much as any other political thinker, Locke provided the moral, legal, and philosophical foundation for a system of governance based on a reasonably equitable distribution of power between leaders and led. Not incidentally, nowhere was Locke more influential than on the North American continent. In fact the Declaration of Independence was thought by some to be so derivative, it was said of Thomas Jefferson that he had lifted from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.

After the American and French Revolutions, it was only a matter of time before ideas such as liberty, equality, independence, and individualism travelled still further – literally, as in geographically, and metaphorically, as in the contagion of ideas. Groups previously oppressed – blacks, workers, and women – came gradually into their own, each developing over time, like colonized people everywhere, their own narrative of rebellion and revolution. Essentially the motivation of liberation was repeated over and over again, well into the 20th century (think the fall of the Wall and the collapse of Communism), and now, only recently, into the 21st (think the Arab Awakening).

Underpinning every single one of these political upheavals was the idea that the Social Contract – the contract between leaders and led – must be revised. Moreover, every single one of these revisions ends up looking more or less the same: leaders slated to be weaker than before, more constricted and constrained; and followers, ordinary people, slated to be stronger than before, freer to do what they want how they want, and to diminish or even oppose those with more power and authority than they.

The impact of this historical trajectory on political life in the 21st century seems to me to be screamingly obvious. In nearly every place on the planet there are political leaders struggling to lead. And in nearly every place on the planet there are followers, voters, constituents; ordinary people resisting people in positions of political authority. European leaders have been driven out by voters with record speed and in record numbers. America’s elected officials have been hamstrung by a badly divided government that reflects its badly divided people. Russia’s longtime strongman, Vladimir Putin, has been rendered considerably less strong than he was, say, a decade ago. Chinese authorities have been put to the test by political activists in ways that, historically, are unprecedented. And protesters from Myanmar to Mexico have wrested, or tried to, political change from the clutches of political stasis.

This leveling between leaders and followers is attributable not only to changes in our collective culture, but also to changes in how we conduct our collective business. I refer especially to the revolution in information technology, which has empowered ordinary people in ways that are new and different altogether. The distribution of information, ease of expression, and capacity for connection are joined – the result is political action. Never before in human history has information been so quickly and widely dispersed. Never before in human history have ordinary people been able so freely and publicly to express themselves. Never before in human history have people of every station had the capacity to connect and communicate with others, anywhere and everywhere. And never before in human history has it been so easy publicly to protest, if only because we can confirm in a heartbeat that others are ready, willing, and able to do the same.

This leveling between leaders and followers is attributable not only to changes in our collective culture, but also to changes in how we conduct our collective business. I refer especially to the revolution in information technology.

Consider this: an offensive and tawdry trailer for an offensive and tawdry film, “Innocence of Muslims,” was made on the cheap by a handful of individuals in California. The trailer was posted on YouTube. What were the near-inevitable results? First, massive, explosive, and ultimately destructive anti-American protests in dozens of countries; second, a number of the world’s most prominent and powerful political leaders, including obviously the president of the United States, were derailed. They were forced, in effect, to drop what they were doing, to focus instead on what in an instant had become a foreign policy crisis. It was yet another example, if any were needed, of how easy it now is for just a few followers to compel leaders in some way to bend to their will. (Think 9/11.) As Joseph Nye has observed, world politics is no longer the sole province of governments. Other individuals and institutions are now empowered “to play direct roles in world politics … in ways that undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy.”3

Lest you think this encroachment on leaders by followers is confined to the political realm, think again. Examples in business are less dramatic – unlike political leaders, corporate leaders do not generally traffic in matters of life and death. But they are no less real. Like their public sector counterparts, private sector leader and managers are obliged now to tend to their followers, their subordinates, in ways that historically are unprecedented.

To make my case as economically and persuasively as possible, I will reference just a single case in point: a recent issue of Harvard Business Review OnPoint which carried on the cover the banner, “Managing Your Stakeholders.”4 This raises these questions: what exactly are stakeholders and whoexactly are stakeholders? Well, in my parlance at least, stakeholders are followers. While the word “follower” continues to carry the bad odor of being politically incorrect – no one wants to be thought a follower; everyone wants to be thought a leader – it is, as I have argued for some time, no more and no less than the logical counterpart to the word “leader.” So, stakeholders are all those whom leaders need to align if they are to accomplish what they want and intend. The editors of Harvard Business Review OnPoint include in this category: employees, shareholders, customers, competitors, and also “activists, and the rest of society.” And they make clear the reason for their special emphasis: in the 21st century it is very hard for leaders to master the “many strategic relationships that you must leverage in order to succeed.”5

Never before were CEOs (and managers more generally) so saddled with having to manage so many various and even amorphous “strategic relationships.” Never before were CEOs told (implicitly or explicitly) to be so considered and considerate of their different stakeholders – followers. Never before were CEOs tasked with managing the web, social media, and other (present and future) mobile and interactive communications and information technologies. Never before were CEOs instructed to “orchestrate co-creative engagement everywhere in the ecosystems in which their enterprises participate.” Never before were CEOs encouraged at every turn to “support a participatory culture,” and to be “co-creative engagement orchestrators.”6 Never before, in short, were so few corporate leaders rendered so anxious by so many cautions concerning corporate followers.

My own article in the same publication, a reprint from a piece in the Harvard Business Review that wasoriginally published in 2007, foreshadowed the trend.7 I focused on employee-followers and wrote at the time, “Contrary to what the leadership industry would have you believe, the relationship between superiors and their subordinates is not one-sided. Nor are followers all one and they same. [Moreover] insofar as they can, followers act in their own self-interests, just as leaders do. And while they may lack authority, at least in comparison with their superiors, followers do not lack power and influence.”8 I urged leaders and managers to “acknowledge the importance of understanding their followers,” and to take note of the changing dynamic between them. In other words, I was drawing private sector attention to what was already a public sector phenomenon: leaders getting weaker, followers getting stronger.

The old command and control style of leadership is obviously dead and gone. What is less obvious – and what remains difficult if not impossible for the leadership industry to admit or even to acknowledge – is that in keeping with the trajectory of history, leadership itself has been transformed from what it was even a decade or so ago, into something quite different. (“Leadership industry” is my catchall term for the now countless leadership centers, institutes, programs, courses, seminars, workshops, experiences, books, blogs, articles, websites, webinars, videos, conferences, consultants, and coaches that claim to teach people how to lead.)9

This transformation has implications with which most of us have yet to come to grips. To be sure, we have changed some. The recent issue of Harvard Business Review OnPoint to which I refer is evidence of this shift, in tone and even in emphasis. Moreover whereas in the older model the leader was at the top, while everyone else was in the middle or at the bottom, in the newer model the leader is at the center of the action, while everyone else pivots around. But even this more recent model is dated. It should be revised.

A more accurate envisioning of leadership and followership in the second decade of the 21st century is one in which leaders and followers have greater parity – in which it is immediately obvious that change can be created by anyone anywhere at any time, and that followers have an impact on leaders as well as the other way around.10 Of course leaders do still have more power, authority, and influence than followers. But most followers in most places no longer have serious compunctions or inhibitions about ignoring their leaders altogether; or about relentlessly demeaning or diminishing them; or about taking them on – or down. It’s why leadership itself must be re-imagined and reconceived – and why the leadership industry must be reconfigured and revamped.

About the Author

Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She was the Founding Executive Director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership from 2000 to 2003; and from 2003 to 2006 she served as the Center’s Research Director. Kellerman has held professorships at Fordham, Tufts, Fairleigh Dickenson, George Washington, Uppsala, and Dartmouth Universities. She received her doctorate in Political Science from Yale University, and is author and editor of many books and articles on leadership and followership. They include, most recently, Bad Leadership, Followership, Women and Leadership, Leadership: Essential Selections, and The End of Leadership. Kellerman appears regularly on U. S. media, and speaks to audiences around the world.


1. For my analysis of the role of The Prince in the context of the great leadership literature, see Barbara Kellerman, Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence (McGraw-Hill, 2010).
2. For a fuller discussion of my argument, see my most recent book, The End of Leadership (HarperColllins, 2012).
3. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Future of Power (Public Affairs, 2011), pp. 124, 125.
4. The Harvard Business Review OnPoint issue here referenced is Fall 2012.
5. The Editors, “A High-Wire Act,” p. 2.
6. The quotes in this paragraph are from Venkat Ramaswamy and Kerimcan Ozcan, “CEOs Must Engage All Stakeholders, p. 10.
7. Barbara Kellerman, “What Every Leader Needs to Know about Followers,” pp. 96-103. Also see, Barbara Kellerman, Followership: How Followers Create Change and Change Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).
8. P. 103.
9. The leadership industry is discussed in some detail in The End of Leadership.
10. New York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman refers to the need for “two-way conversations” – between leaders and whoever are their constituents, stakeholders, followers.

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