A Symbiotic Relationship Between Leaders and Followers

Organizations are constantly faced with the need to transform in order to survive in today’s environment in which change is perceived as incessant. The organizations that survive and remain viable will most likely be those steered by effective leaders. Winston and Patterson define a leader as anyone who selects, trains, equips, and influences one or more followers to work towards achieving the organizational mission and objectives. (2003). How do leaders create successful organizations? Kelley (2003) posited that a leaders’ effectiveness is contingent upon the followers input, in other words a leader is as effective as the followers will permit. While much work and research has been carried out to highlight the importance of leadership in organization, there seems to be insufficient research with regards to the remarkable contribution of followers to the organization. Kelley in his book, “The Power of followership” asserts that few people have studied followership; instead the attention has always been on leadership. If leaders are to create successful organizations they must recognize that followers are the most essential resource the organization has and that only by understanding the needs of their followers can they achieve organizational success. How can leaders channel their focus on followers to maximize organizational success?

Leadership theories continue to evolve even as leaders continue in their pursuit to achieve and sustain organizational success. The focus of organizational success has for decades resided with leaders. Kelley points out that the term follower has, over the years been looked at as inferior to organizational success. That stigma created a false hierarchal depiction which allowed the position of leaders to be more worthy of consideration. Leaders were therefore seen as the means to the end of organizational success. Current research by scholars such as Chaleff and Kelley has challenged this view by emphasizing that unless leaders are supported by strong followers, organizational success is not possible. Kotter substantiated these findings by reiterating that the complexity of contemporary organization prevents it from being transformed by a sole giant. He went on to state that leadership efforts must have the support of followers for success to be a possibility. Without followers’ participation, the implementation of organizational decisions will not be promising. Followers, according to Kelley make up 80-90% of the organization. He went on to identify different types of followership: the conformists, pragmatists, passivists or exemplary. While psychoanalyst such as Fromm view these styles as partially resulting from ones personality; Kelley went on to explain that Leaders who spend time to analyze each of his followers will realize that each followership style is as a result of unmet expectations and mistrust, or a leaders style of leadership. Conformist followers may be defined as those followers who will not challenge the norm of the organization for fear of reprisals but instead prefer to be “yes” men; Conformists followers cannot function optimally in a climate where change is the norm. According to Kelley for organizations to succeed leaders need followers who are willing to challenge the status quo and not be merely “yes” men. Another type of followers are pragmatist, these followers are created by unstable organizations. Kelley went on to say that leaders who promote transactional relationship with followers foster pragmatism as these followers will choose to be obedient and subservient in order to keep their job. Leaders may also create passive followers. Passive followers are not given any sense of autonomy, hence they feel comfortable been led. Then there are exemplary followers, these followers are proactive and creative; they bring innovativeness to the organizations and are willing to expend their talents for the good of the organization. By acknowledging the variety of followers operating within the organization; leaders are now empowered to create and maximize follower’s potential in order to create successful organizations. How?

As noted organization passes through different stages, at each stage of the organization leaders should expect to find followers with different styles. When leaders can identify the style exhibited by followers they can tailor their leadership style to efficiently and effectively assist followers to create and sustain successful organizations. Organizations that are in their initial stages, according to Daft referred to the entrepreneur stage, this stage require followers who are creative and innovative. It now becomes the leader’s job to get workers who are anything but exemplary to metamorpsize into followers who are willing to explore their creativity. This stage of the organization requires leaders that are multifaceted in their leadership style. As the organization progresses into the collectivity stage it requires leadership that is flexible enough to allow employees scope to explore while at the same time providing motivation and direction. Strong charismatic leadership becomes useful during this period (Daft, 2007). The final stage is the formalization and elaboration period, this period consist of a continuous change and requires leaders who are good at enforcing rules and regulations but at the same time recognize that followers should not be treated as the expendable resource. Leaders who ignore the less than ideal style of followership will continue to feed their dysfunction and encourage followers to exhibit less innovativeness. The end result is a failed or less than successful organization. One of the greatest applications of multi-style leadership may be found in one of the Pauline epistles. The Apostle Paul is revered today as one of the greatest leaders within the Christian community, in looking at 1 Corinthians 9: 19-22, he provided us with a vivid example of how leaders should adjust their styles to that of their followers in order to create a successful organization. In each verse, Paul adapted his style as necessary so that his followers could maximize their potential which eventually assisted him in achieving organizational success. Leaders are now therefore charged to employ a multi-leadership style model which should successfully combat each followership style for the good of the organization. The multi-leadership style takes more than one style of leadership when making a decision, the leader is able to assess the situation then strategically apply the style necessary to influence the condition.

Contemporary organizations demand effective leadership in order to be successful. Successful leadership is not solely dependent on leaders, but represents instead the quality of the symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers. Ultimately great leaders are products of great followers. One key ingredient that should therefore determine a leader’s style is that of his followers. One size does not fit all; hence it is important that leaders adapt their style to maximize the capabilities of their followers. This can be done effectively when leaders are fully cognizant of their followers’ style and then can adjust their approach accordingly. The multi-faceted model is useful in that it recognizes the different challenges at the different stages within the organization; it recognizes that leadership styles must be adjusted to suit each organizational stage; and finally it recognizes that followers are the channels through which organizational successes are realized, as such leaders must, in their quest to create successful organizations adjust their styles accordingly.


Chaleff, I. (2003). The Courageous Follower, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA.

Daft, R. L., (2006). Organizational Theory and Design. (9th Ed.). Thompson South-Western, Cincinnati, OH.

Kelley, R. (1992).The Power of Followership, Doubleday, New York, NY.

Kotter, J. (2006), Strategically Balance Change, a Key Factor Modern Management, 2006 Vol. 11, No. 1.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization (Updated Ed.). Sage Publications,
Thousand Oaks, CA.

Boerner, S., Eisenbeiss, A., & Griesser, D. (2006). Follower behavior and organizational performance: the impact of transformational leaders. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 2006, Vol. 13, No. 3.

Sullivan, G. Leadership is creating a future for your organization, Retrieved 10 November 2007,

Winston, B., Patterson, K. (2005), Integrated Definition of Leadership, Retrieved November 11, 2007, http://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/ijls/new/vol1iss2/winston_patterson.doc/winston_patterson.htm.

Arlina Josse

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