In Praise of Followership: The Undisputed Leader of Underrated Roles

“Unpredictable” best describes where I started, where I ended, and what I accomplished in my career. I became an academic after experiencing a nonacademic world that I realized was more boring than the working world of my father. He was a microbiology professor at Ohio State University who parlayed his talents into a research professorship at the University of Georgia. Given his wisdom, integrity, and people skills, his colleagues and I thought that he was a shoe-in to climb the leadership hierarchy in academia. Instead, he preferred the role of follower with the academic freedom to teach what he wanted and to conduct research on the world of microorganisms that he fell in love with as a young man. A klutz in the lab, I gravitated to another side of campus to study public administration with a passion for learning about leadership, employee motivation, decision making, organization change, and job design.

For a majority of my career, I was a professor at The University of Alabama where I was hired to teach courses on public sector organization theory and human resource management. With expertise in a work-related discipline, I found myself involved with various committees that dealt with the business side of the University and, by mid-career, was made President of the Faculty Senate, a somewhat dubious distinction given that no one else was willing to serve in the role. As Senate President, I advocated for 1,100 faculty members and presided over a 50-member Senate and a 17-member Senate Steering Committee. I would contend that the job was the third most demanding role on campus next to the University President’s and Provost’s roles.

Most of the day as Senate President, I felt like a glorified operator in need of a degree in social work or clinical psychology. I held the hand of every nut and hurting faculty member on campus and directed professors where to go to solve their problems — places where they should have begun instead of starting with me. As the emails and phone calls tapered off at the end of the work day, I finally had time to attempt to be the entrepreneurial leader that I wanted to be. With an aggressive agenda, we fought to integrate racially the White Greek system, secure domestic partner benefits, establish a faculty ombuds, and institutionalize 360-degree evaluation of deans and department chairs. I worked long hours, peeved a lot of people, was chronically crabby, and hence chose to serve only a one-year term. I loved leadership as a classroom topic, but I sure as hell didn’t enjoy being an executive-level leader. I now understood why my father didn’t want to be in a university administrator, why nobody wanted to be the Faculty Senate President, and why university presidents and vice presidents earned three and four times my salary.

Meanwhile, in the teaching dimension of my job, I was becoming progressively more uncomfortable with the frame of reference of my courses and discipline. The material that I loved wasn’t connecting with a large element of students, while the writings on followership by Robert Kelley, Barbara Kellerman, and Ira Chaleff were inspiring me. Pairing these two forces with my disagreeable experience as a Faculty Senate President, I came to the conclusion that I was teaching students how to be effective leaders and managers when I should have been teaching them how to be what most of them really wanted and were destined to be — followers.

Teaching students to become skilled followers may seem like a lower aspirational bar than teaching them how to become effective leaders. However, I finally realized the obvious — leadership training targets the few, while followership training is relevant to everyone. Moreover, in thinking about the three most influential people that I have known in my career, two, Russell and Scott, were followers without any formal power, while one was a university president. Beyond his teaching and research responsibilities, Russell’s moxie allowed him to found an academic program at Oxford University, two honor societies, a soccer club, a soccer league for southeastern states, an endowed chair, a premier campus, a library endowment, and no telling how many new campus policies and committees. Topping Russell, Scott went so far as to start a campus change academy, a leadership development academy, a leadership camp for high-schoolers, a speaker series, an annual civil rights tribute, a civil rights trail, bottom-up appraisal of deans and department chairs, and a higher education lobby for the entire state. Moreover, unlike their superiors, Russell and Scott’s prodigious accomplishments were realized without ever having to discipline subordinates, give ego-bruising performance evaluations, fire employees, delegate unpleasant assignments, and deny pay raises and promotions to unforgiving subordinates.

When I began my academic career in 1981, I would not have predicted that I would retire venerating the role and accomplishments of followers instead of leaders. I also would not have predicted that I would spend most of my career as a follower. Yet mentored by and teamed with Russell and Scott, we all won awards for leadership when we were, ironically, nothing more than followers. I will always contend that followership is an awful position when subordinates are subjected to grown-depressing jobs, incompetent leaders, and abusive bosses who straight-jacket followers in a climate of fear. However, in healthy work environments, I have grown to understand that, with a modicum of vision, persistence, and political savvy, a follower can head home each night with a sigh of contentment, if not a giddy grin, knowing that much was accomplished without the yoke of unpleasant responsibilities that shackle the time and emotions of leaders.