Leadership, Followership, and the Future of Leadership Studies
American society has been enthralled with authoritarian or a ‘top down’ type of leadership for generations (Bennis, 1999). This form of leadership consolidates power at the top of organizations while leaving the followers powerless to create change (Northouse, 2015, p.4).(Northouse, 2015 #73) However, the transition from the industrial age to the information age pushed the transition in leadership studies to progressively include ever growing follower-centric approaches (Dolence and Norris, 1995).
Followership is a relatively new field of study (Francis, 2014, p. 117). To achieve optimum results within an organization, a leader must learn the art of cultivating great followers that have the ability to demonstrate leadership and independent thought (p. 117). A capable leader should be coupled with strong, capable followers (Kelley, 1992, p.126). A strong, capable follower has the ability to think critically and act independent of the leader (p.126). These followers will evaluate the soundness of a leader's strategy, raise concerns when needed, while still maintaining the direction and vision of the leader (Francis, 2014, p. 117). According to Chaleff, it is vital for followers to express their concerns to their leaders for the good of the organization (2009).
What is Leadership?
Leadership is a complex process involving one's ability to influence a group to forge and progress toward common goals (Northouse, 2015, p. 6). Leadership is not a trait or concept; it is an action embarked on for a specific time and purpose (p. 6). Kouz and Barry (2012) echo Northouse in the statement “Leadership is not about who you are; it’s about what you do” ( p.6). Because it is a process, anyone can be involved in leadership (p.6). No longer being limited to titles and roles, leadership can be engaged in by everyone within the organization ( p. 4). It is now acceptable for leaders and followers to engage in leadership or followership based on the situation that the organization is facing (Malakyan, 2014, p.11).
Historical Progression: Leadership in the Twentieth Century
Northouse (2015) asserts that there has been a shift in the research perspective of leadership since the early 1920’s (p. 3). In the early part of the twentieth-century leadership studies were focused on the centralization of power or the monarchical form of leadership (Northouse, 2015, p.3). As time progressed, social pressures, world events, and political considerations have caused leadership studies to progress away from the concept of ‘the man’, or a single person as the leader, and toward a more inclusive form of leadership (Northouse, 2015, p. 3).
The 1930’s and 1940’s were primarily dominated by the study of influence and the relationship that influence has on a group (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). This influence was often used to manipulate a group into moving toward the goal of the authoritarian leader through coercion (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). The 1950’s and 1960’s saw a push to clearly define leadership as a product of group interaction (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). Seaman (1960) claimed that leadership is the “acts by persons which influence other persons in a shared direction” (p. 53). During this time, leadership research began to move into a more group goal-oriented direction (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). The focus was turned away from the leader as an individual and began to see the leader within context of the group (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). During the 1970’s the focus on groups shifted to an organizational behavioral approach (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). It was during this time that leadership came to be known as a reciprocal process (Burned, 1978, p. 425). The interactions of a leader were expected to have a form of ebb and flow with those being led (Malakyan, 2014, p.11). The followers were expected to give feedback and the leader was held accountable to those standards (Davis, 2003).
The 1980’s saw the rise of two major veins of thought in leadership studies; the trait approach and the transformation approach (Northouse, 2015, p. 4). During this decade, the residual effect of dictatorial leadership methods were still common, however, more follower-centric approaches began to gain ground (ibid). The trait approach focused on different traits that a leader needed and the transformative approach focused on the need to transform individuals and organizations (ibid). In recent years, cultural changes have allowed organizations to begin to loosely couple their structures (Orton and Weik, 1990) to promote a better dissemination of information (Chaleff, 2009). This trend of structuring organizations allows followers to have more control over their performance and actions thereby causing a rise in spontaneous leadership (Northouse, 2015, p. 6).
Scholarly Direction of Leadership
Modern research has taken a more holistic view of leadership, analyzing the models and framework used in the study of leadership (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009, p. 441). According to Northouse (2015), there are four major directions that leadership studies are pursuing in the 21st century; authentic leadership, spiritual leadership, servant leadership, and adaptive leadership (p. 4-5). Although there is less research on these topics, they are growing in popularity.
Authentic, Spiritual, Servant, and Adaptive Leadership
Authentic leadership is leadership based on a consistency between what is said and what is done (Goffee & Jones, 2000, p.16). The study of authentic leadership is relatively new to the field of leadership study and is unique in its focus on leading by expressing one's true self (p.17). What is genuine and ‘real’ in one's own self becomes the chief method by which an individual will attempt to lead and influence a group (Northouse, 2015, p.195). Authentic leadership is the one major field of leadership studies, other than servant leadership, that has followership considerations within its sphere of study (Malakyan, 2014, p.10).
When a leader uses a sense of calling in order to motivate individuals toward a common goal, the leader is practicing spiritual leadership (Northouse, 2015, p. 5). Spiritual leadership often reflects the morals and values of the particular group in order to maintain the health and vitality of the followers (p. 4) similar to servant leadership. While spiritual leadership is focused on one's calling, servant leadership is focused on the general wellbeing of the followers (p. 226). It is perhaps the most follower-centered approach, as it places the welfare of those that are lead above the self-interest of the leader and the organization (p. 226). Servant leaders are driven by a social responsibility to take care of those being led (p. 225-227).
Adaptive leadership is all about change (Northouse, 2015, p. 257). An individual practicing adaptive leadership is primarily concerned with helping followers adapt to changes in their environment or organization (p. 257). Adaptive leadership promotes change and helps followers adapt to those changes (p. 257). At this time, a foundation is still being laid for the study of adaptive leadership (257). "Adaptive leadership stresses the activities of the leader in relation to the work of followers in the contexts in which they find themselves" (p. 257).
What is Followership?
Leadership cannot exist without followership (Burns, 1978; Heller & Van Til, 1983; Hollander, 1992; Jago, 1982). This process creates the relationship between the leader and the follower and must be maintained by the leader (Northouse, 2015, p. 6). This leader-follower relationship is a result of the consent of an individual freely choosing another to lead them (Johnson, 2011, p. 36).
Recently, organizations have seen a shift from authority solely resting on the shoulders of one individual, to more of a group regulation mindset (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006). Through this method, group members are corporately held responsible for their actions and results (Konradt, 2013). With these changes, both leadership and followership tend to rise and fall like the tides of the ocean (Malakyan, 2014, p.11). The roles of leadership and followership become fluid: one moment an individual can be practicing followership, and the next moment the same individual can be practicing leadership (Malakyan, 2014, p.11).
Historical Progression: Followership in the Twentieth Century
Research has been preoccupied with the study of leadership, but the vast majority of people in any organization are followers (Kelly, 1992, p. 143). At the beginning of the twentieth century, followership study began to be introduced into the educational system (Malakyan, 2014, p.6). As far back as the 1700's, followers were seen as a tool to be used by leader in order to achieve the leaders vision (p.7). By the end of the eighteenth century, leaders were expected to exploit followers by psychological and social manipulation in order to achieve the goals of the leaders (p.7).
Modern day studies of followership are attempting to lift the veil on the ‘sheep’ mentality still being pushed within the study of followership (Kelly, 1992, p. 37). Due to followers rejecting toxic, greedy leaders, the attention of leadership studies is now being focused on followership (Konradt, 2013). Modern day followers have more rights than at any time during history, choosing whom to follow, when to follow, and why to follow (Malakyan, 2014, p.7).
Scholarly Direction of Followership
Leadership studies focusing on followership is gaining traction (Malakyan, 2014, p.7). It was not until the early 1990's that followership studies began to emerge (p.8). In 2014, Malakyan made the argument for a "Leader-Follower Trade Approach," which combined the principles learned from leadership studies and applied them ‘organically’ to followership (p.11). To practice "Leader-Follower Trade Approach", both leaders and followers must have the ability to exchange roles fluidly in order to maximize situational results (p.11).
In a Nutshell
The relationship between leadership and followership in the modern era continues to change as society looks for alternative ways to achieve optimum performance (Chaleff, 2009). The study of followership is in its infancy compared to the vast amounts of research done on leadership (Malakyan, 2014, p.6). However, the synthesis between the two fields will promote excellence and a depth of understanding that one alone cannot achieve (Bennis, Benne, & Chin, 1985). To reach peak performance, followers must exercise leadership, and leaders must be willing to listen to the counsel of followers (Riggio, 2014, p.16). In order to achieve this synthesis, leadership studies must refrain from focusing solely on the role of the leader and expand its study to that of the follower (p.15).
Avolio, B. J., Walumbwa, F. O., & Weber, T. J. (2009). Leadership: current theories, research, and future direction. Annual Review of Psychology, 421-449.