Followership: the theoretical foundation of a contemporary construct.

Author:Baker, Susan D.

This article presents the theoretical foundation of followership. The words follower and followership are increasingly used in discussions of leadership and organizations, and many think that the field of followership began in 1988 with Kelley's "In Praise of Followers." Followership research began in 1955, and literature in the social sciences discussed followers and followership for decades prior. By examining why leadership rather than followership is emphasized; discussing antecedents, early theory, and research about followership; and identifying common themes found in the literature, this article provides the foundation that has been missing in contemporary discussion of the followership construct.

Keywords: followership; leadership; leader role; follower role; relational nature of leader-follower; organizational behavior; management; authentic leadership


Almost 30 years ago, Kelley's article, "In Praise of Followers, was published in Harvard Business Review (1988). It received wide attention in both academic and popular presses for its seemingly novel proposal that followers had an active role to play in organizational success: Success was not solely dependent on dynamic leaders. The idea that followers could be more than passive subordinates was echoed in the next decade by Chaleff's (1995) work about courageous followers.

These two publications by Kelley (1988) and Chaleff (1995) became the primary works on which subsequent discussions of followership were based. A small but growing body of work about followership developed into a field of its own, asserting that leadership could no longer be studied in isolation or with only a small nod to followers. Citing Kelley and Chaleff, theorists proposed behaviors, styles, and characteristics of effective followers and posited interdependency in the leader--follower relationship.

As theorists and selected researchers moved forward in their discussion of followership, few looked back across the decades preceding Kelley's (1988) work. The purpose of this article is to provide a theoretical foundation for the field of followership and to examine the roots from which it developed in the United States in the 20th century management literature. By discussing why management theorists focused on leaders rather than followers, identifying the early voices of followership theory, describing followership's antecedents, and identifying the common themes found in the literature, this article acknowledges the origins of followership theory and begins to set the foundation missing in contemporary discussions of the followership construct. It also acknowledges the limited followership-centric literature in the 21st century and identifies contemporary exploration of a common followership theme by leadership theorists. It concludes by proposing further areas for research in followership.

It is important to note that the body of followership literature, distinct from what is traditionally viewed as leadership literature, is small. A search of 26 electronic databases produced approximately 480 unique citations for the period 1928 through September 2004 (Baker, 2006); approximately 50 more have been added through December 2006. About half of the citations were relevant to the field of management, and the great majority of the citations were written by American authors and about American organizations. The citations included opinion pieces as well as articles published in popular and trade magazines and academic and scholarly journals. In general, followership theory developed in the latter half of the 20th century. With limited exception, the few dissertations and articles written about followership in the first few years of the 21st century have explored facets of followership theory posited in earlier decades.

The number of leadership citations in comparable publications dwarfs the body of followership literature. Why has there been so much emphasis on leadership and so little on followership? The next part of the article examines this question.

Why Is the Focus on Leaders Rather Than Followers?

From leadership theories as early as Great Man down to the 1970s, the common view of leadership was that leaders actively led and subordinates, later called followers, passively and obediently followed. As Follett (1996) observed in 1933, her contemporaries thought that one was "either a leader or nothing of much importance" (p. 170). Why were followers ignored as the spotlight shone so brightly on leaders?

In the early...

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