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Written by Dr. Joel Hoomans
Published: August 27, 2014

Historical Reflections on the Value of Followership

Originally published March 2010.

Lessons from the Battle of Trafalgar

It’s a little celebrated fact here in the United States that 2005 marked the 200th anniversary of the naval Battle of Trafalgar – a naval battle in which the English fleet under the renowned leadership of Admiral Horatio Viscount Nelson soundly defeated a larger French and Spanish force under the leadership of French Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve.  More importantly, this battle, fought on October 21, 1805, was the most pivotal naval battle of the 19th Century because it ended Napoleon’s hopes of invading England – one of the few pieces of European real-estate that was not subject to his otherwise complete domination of the continent at the time (Wikipedia).  This critical engagement marks the beginning of Napoleon Bonaparte’s demise.  Despite the fact that the French commander had 33 ships committed to battle, while the English navy had just 27 ships, the English completely dominated the battle.  The allies lost 22 ships; the English did not lose a single vessel.

Historians often focus on the contrasting leadership of the two leaders involved, and there is no doubt that they were influential in the outcome.  In fact, Nelson’s brilliantly effective tactics broke the naval engagement paradigms of the day and his passion for his mission and country cost him his life – shot down by an enemy sniper while the battle raged on.  However, considering the fact that each leader occupied but one ship of their armada and had “little or no control of the disposition and actions of his ships” (Wikipedia), one eventually has to focus on the followers – in this case the crews involved.

The Critical Factor of Followers

At the time of the battle the English flagship HMS Victory had a crew of 820 men and a substantial hierarchy, not unlike the typical organizational structure of the recent past.  There was the Captain, 9 Commissioned Officers, 21 Midshipmen, 77 Non-commissioned Petty Officers, 146 Royal Marines, 535 Able and Ordinary Seamen, Landsmen, and Supernumeries, and 31 boys – and that is just one ship.  Each crewman had very specialized positions and responsibilities (HMS-Victory.com).  The crews of both sides numbered in the tens of thousands and their function and performance was critical to the incredible coordination that each fighting vessel required for navigation and fighting, not to mention a victorious outcome.  This coordination had to happen despite the incredible diversity represented by the function and backgrounds of the crew -  HMS Victory alone had 18 different countries represented by the members of her crew (HMS-Victory.com).

Today’s ships and naval battles have changed substantially, however the allure of heroic leadership remains.  In an age of continued fascination with leadership, when will we consider the critical factor of the followers and how they impact outcomes in military battles, competitive business strategies, political achievements, or the church mission?  After all, without his army and navy, Napoleon was just a man with grand ambitions.  “Organizations stand or fall partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on the basis of how well their followers follow” (Kelley, 142).  How effective and diverse is the crew of your leadership vessel and how can you make them better?

"Without his army and navy, Napoleon was just a man with grand ambitions."

Leadership is changing.  Thanks to the internet and other media, leaders are no longer the exclusive source of vital information about their companies or fields; therefore they can no longer expect to be followed blindly by their now well-informed, more skeptical ranks…leadership is now something that is given, not taken.  It is increasingly something that only empowered followers can bestow (Brown, 68).

Leader and Follower: A Relationship-based Approach

According to a review of the current leadership literature by Yukl and Van Fleet, “Most of the prevailing leadership theories have been simple, unidirectional models of what a leader does to subordinates” (186).  “The follower remains an under-explored source of variance in understanding leadership processes” (Lord, Brown, and Freiberg, 167).  Despite the fact that the current theories of charismatic leadership focus on leaders and the positive and negative consequences of their personality or behavior, new attention is being given to the role of followers in leadership processes (Howell and Shamir, 96).  Robert Kelley makes the point that “most of us are more often followers than leaders.  Even when we have subordinates, we still have bosses…so followership dominates our lives and organizations, but not our thinking, because our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and the importance of the follower” (143).

An important step in focusing on the role of the follower came as a result of the leader-member exchange (LMX) approach developed by Graen.  Unlike most leadership theories, this theory acknowledges the importance of the role of followers in leadership processes, and emphasizes that both leader and follower mutually determine the quality of the relationship.  This relationship-based approach to leadership contends that “…effective leadership processes occur when leaders and followers are able to develop mature leadership relationships (partnerships) and thus gain access to the many benefits these relationships bring” (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 225).

Five Classifications of Followers

One noted definition of a follower is “a person who acknowledges the focal leader as a continuing source of guidance and inspiration, regardless of whether there is any formal reporting relationship” (Yukl, 6).  Some fascinating research by Robert E. Kelley investigates followers on two dimensions.  One dimension measures to what degree followers exercise independent, critical thinking.  The other ranks them on a passive/active scale.  This results in five classifications of followers:  ‘Sheep’; ‘Yes People’; ‘Alienated Followers’; ‘Survivors’; and ‘Effective Followers.’

  1. Sheep are passive and uncritical, lacking in initiative and sense of responsibility.  They perform the tasks given them and stop. 
  2. Yes People are more energetic, however, are often dependent on the leader for inspiration, and are largely unenterprising. 
  3. Alienated Followers are largely critical, independent thinkers, but are often indifferent in carrying out their role or fulfilling objectives. 
  4. Survivors are shape-shifting individuals who live by the slogan “better safe than sorry” and are adept at surviving change. 
  5. Effective Followers “think for themselves and carry out their duties and assignments with energy and assertiveness” (Kelley, 143).  Amidst the diversity of nationality/ethnicity, race, gender, age, etc., leaders must also consider the more central diversity of the various follower types and address the forces that shape them.

Kelley’s research breaks out four essential qualities possessed by effective followers:

  1. They manage themselves well.
  2. They are committed to the organization and to a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves.
  3. They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact.
  4. They are courageous, honest, and credible (Kelley, 144).

As one looks over this list it is not hard to notice that the qualities of effective followers are pretty much the same as the qualities of effective leaders (Kelley, 146).  So in summary of his findings Kelley states, “Followership is not a person but a role, and what distinguishes followers from leaders is not intelligence or character but the role they play…Instead of seeing the leadership role as superior to and more active than the role of the follower, we can think of them as equal but different activities” (146).  Others would argue that followership is a form of leadership: “following is a subtle act of leadership” (Smith, 202).  It is critical that organizations teach followership as a prerequisite to leadership.

Followership: A Prerequisite to Leadership

Building an organization of effective followers and leaders starts with a recruitment and selection process that draws qualified candidates and identifies the qualities of effective leaders relayed in Kelley’s research.  Tactics here include involving applicants in role playing and situational interviewing that provide organizational members a chance to hire based on exhibited behavior that reflects initiative, going beyond what is expected, critical thinking, creativity, and an ability to manage priorities.  Effective followers tend to hold higher performance standards than the work environment requires and continuing education is second nature to them – a staple in their professional environment.  Less effective followers expect training and development to come to them and only possess required training (Kelley, 145).  Examples of past behavior in addition to current demonstrations in role playing have been shown to be good predictors of future potential (Jackson and Schuler, 325).  Remember that all bosses are not necessarily good leaders; and all subordinates 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 (Kelley, 143).  When you have the chance, be selective about the crew of your vessel.  Chances are that your candidates reflect the full scope of diverse follower types outlined by Kelley’s work.  Does your process reveal the effective followers in the applicant pool?

The reality is that by the time most of us make the rank of Captain, there is a very strong possibility that we are inheriting a crew that has sailed the same ship under previous leadership.  The result is a legacy of deeply ingrained culture that has enhanced the diversity of followers both for and against you.  Once aboard the organizational ship, leaders must identify the types of followers that make up their crew and get to the hard work of developing them, rather than making them all walk the plank.  A program of follower training that helps across the various types of followers should focus on the following topics like:

  • Disagreeing respectfully
  • Building credibility
  • Aligning personal goals/values/commitments and organizational goals/values/commitments
  • Responsibility and follow-through
  • Similarities and differences between leadership and followership roles
  • Moving between roles

Teams with rotating or temporary leadership can be an effective tactic here as could administration of a small department for six months to a year (Kelley, 147).

Building a Community of Leaders and Followers with Common Values

Organizations need to have well-developed organizational ideology (e.g. vision statements, mission/purpose statements, positioning statements – that break out how you are different from your competition, etc) and a socialization process (e.g. policies, procedures, training, organizational structure, etc) that emphasizes the common values underlying the ideology (Howell and Shamir, 109) rather than the differences in roles, genders, races, and personalities.  “Leaders need to remind followers that if you belong to a community or organization, you have a responsibility to contribute to making it better for everyone, not just yourself…leaders must help their followers relinquish a typically Western credo: ‘I am free to do whatever I want, so long as it does not harm anyone’ and substitute instead, ‘I am free to do whatever I want so long as it benefits more than just myself’”(Banutu-Gomez, 143).

A leader’s action can create either alienated or committed workers (Fairholm & Fairholm, 102).  In the case of alienated workers, they may be people who were not recognized for their contributions in the past (Banutu-Gomez, 143).  Perhaps they were punished by leaders past and present for exercising judgments, taking risks, or failing to conform (Kelley, 148).  Leaders must learn to confront the hostility of alienated followers in order to replace it with something more positive.  This is uncomfortable work that is usually avoided.  To address the complaints of alienated followers, a leader must confront the perceived inequality and re-establish some level of trust.  If goals have diverged, an overarching goal, which both leaders and followers can buy into, must be found (Banutu-Gomez, 143).  Alienated followers can then be helped to transform their passivity into activity…perhaps becoming the most effective followers and leaders of the future.

Future Success Requires Effective Followers

In summary, as organizational structures flatten, the quality of those who follow will become more and more important (Kelley, 144).  The argument can be made that good followership both precedes and enhances good leadership.  As Christians, we must first be followers of Christ before we can lead others to Him.  Perhaps then Nelson’s victory and the future successes of your organization are better attributed to the numbers of effective followers (e.g. crew) acquired, retained, and developed in your organization, than they are to your leadership.  If 20% of our effective crew members do 80% of the work (Frisina, 12), imagine the competitive advantage built by increasing that percentage by  even 10%.  Before you determine how good a leader you are, you might first determine what type of follower you are and how well your organization addresses the development of the diverse crew of followers entrusted to sail your organizational ship.

Additional Reading


  • Banutu-Gomez, Michael Ba. “Great Leaders Teach Exemplary Followership and Serve As Servant Leaders.” The Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge 4 (2004): 143 – 151.
  • Battle of Trafalgar. 29 Jun. 2005. Wikipedia.org. Jun. 30 2005 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Trafalgar
  • Battle of Trafalgar Muster Roll. HMS-Victory, Royal Navy. 30 Jun. 2005. <http://www.hms-victory.com/index.php?option=content&task=category&sectionid=9&id=96&Itemid=67>
  • Brown, Arnold. “The New Followership: A Challenge for Leaders.” The Futurist 37.2 (2003): 68.
  • Fairholm, R.M. & Fairholm, G. “Leadership amid the constraints of trust.” The Leadership & Organizational Development Journal 21.2 (2000): 102-109.
  • Frisina, Michael. “Learn to Lead by Following.” Nursing Management 36.3 (2005): 12.
  • Graen, G. B. and M. Uhl-Bien. “Relationship-based approach to ledership: Development of leader-member-exchange (LMX) theory over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective.” Leadership Quarterly 6 (1995): 219-247.
  • Howell, Jane M. and Boas Shamir. “The Role of Followers in the Charismatic Leadership Process: Relationships and Their Consequences.” Academy of Management Review 30.1 (2005): 96-112.
  • Jackson, Susan E. and Randall S. Schuler. Managing Human Resources: A Partnership Perspective. Toronto: South-Western College Publishing, 2000.
  • Kelley, Robert E. ”In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review 66 (1988): 142- 148.
  • Lord, R.G., D.J. Brown, and S.J. Freiberg. “Understanding the Dynamics of Leadership: The Role of Follower Self-Concepts in the Leader/Follower Relationship.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 78 (1999): 167-203.
  • Smith, D.K. The Following Part of Leading, in the Leader of the Future. New York: The Drucker Foundation, 1996.
  • Trafalgar. Voodoo.com 30 Jun. 2005 <http://www.voodoo.cz/victory/trafalgar.html>
  • Yukl, G. Leadership in Organizations. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1998.
  • Yukl, G and D. D. Van Fleet. Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Eds. M. D. Dunnette and L.M. Hough. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1992.

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Leading Edge Business Leadership

Dr. Joel Hoomans

Written by Dr. Joel Hoomans

Joel Hoomans is Assistant Professor of Management and Leadership Studies at Roberts Wesleyan College as well as Director of Graduate Studies in the Division of Business.  He holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University. Prior to his involvement at Roberts Wesleyan College, Joel worked for Wegmans—the premier grocery retailer in the United States—as a human resources professional, eventually becoming their first Manager of Leadership Development.  Joel may be contacted at hoomans_joel@roberts.edu.