Followership: What it is and Why it’s Essential for Leaders to Understand

“If you think you’re a leader and you turn around and no one is following you, then you’re simply out for a walk.” There are mixed opinions about the source of this quote, but it’s one that Dr. Chipp Windham, instructor in Bethel’s M.A. in Strategic Leadership program, keeps top of mind.

Traditionally, the world has held a leadership-centric view: leadership being of the utmost importance and everything else, including followership, being secondary. But followers are essential to the success of any team or organization, which is why studying the concept of followership can be transformative to a person’s leadership abilities.

We sat down with Windham to learn more about what followership is, why it’s an important concept for leaders, and how we can cultivate good followership in ourselves and others.

What is followership?

The study of followership concerns itself with the role a leader plays in understanding who their followers are and how best to lead them. At the same time, it also helps leaders understand how to be better followers themselves. All leaders have been and will be followers at times, and understanding followers’ individual needs (including your own) will help you move your organization forward.

Why is studying followership important?

The day and age of hierarchical leadership is over. “That style is nearly gone,” Windham says. “More and more, we need to be thinking about the skills and needs of the people we work with.” Rather than followers adapting to their leader, Windham says that leaders must identify and adapt to the needs and values of their followers.

As society becomes more diverse, so do followers’ needs and values. “People come to our organizations with all kinds of things that make up who they are,” Windham says. “It really is a leader’s job to identify all of the different values, skills, backgrounds, and relationships so that we can lead each individual based on their values, while still trying to get to the same end goal.”

How can leaders become better followers?

Start by identifying your followership style. There are a variety of tools that can help with this, but when Windham teaches his course on followership, he uses Robert E. Kelley’s model which features five distinct followership styles. People can identify their followership style by understanding where they fall along two different continuums: engagement (from passive to active) and critical thinking (from dependent to independent).

  • Exemplary follower: Exemplary followers have a high level of active engagement and high level of independent critical thinking thinking. Characteristics of an exemplary follower include a willingness to take initiative, provide constructive criticism, assume ownership, and champion the goals of the organization.
  • Conformist follower: Conformist followers have high levels of active engagement but lower levels of critical thinking. They are active “doers” who are often seen as team players. They’re willing to accept assignments and are trusting of leaders, but often they will put the needs of the organization over their own.
  • Passive follower: Passive followers tend to fall on the lower end of both engagement and critical thinking. They follow the leader without question, but need consistent direction. They might be the kind of person who puts in their time, but little more, and they may believe that the organization and its leaders are uninterested in their ideas.
  • Alienated follower: Alienated followers have high levels of independent critical thinking but are low in engagement. They often see themselves as people with a healthy level of skepticism, but others might see them as cynical and not a team player. They might feel like their leader doesn’t fully recognize or utilize their talent.
  • Pragmatist follower: Pragmatist followers have moderate levels of engagement and critical thinking. They may feel like their work environment is full of uncertainty and tend to see where things go before they take action. They are sometimes perceived by others as people who play political games, but they typically see themselves as people who know how to work the system to get things done.

Did you place yourself in the exemplary follower category? Windham would recommend taking a second look. “A lot of people think they are innately exemplary followers when they’re really not,” he says. “85-90% of people tend to place themselves in the exemplary follower category, but that’s just not realistic. If you’re just honest with yourself about where you land, it makes it much easier to identify what your needs are and what types of workplace environments work for you.”

What does good followership look like?

There are entire books written on this topic, one being The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff. Windham uses this text in his followership course. Here are a few high-level characteristics of good followers from Chaleff:

  • Good followers don’t orbit around the leader; followers and leaders orbit together around a common purpose. They work in partnership committed to shared values and causes.
  • Good followers are passionate about their work and the people they serve. If they experience a loss of passion for their work and organization, they’re not content to accept it as normal.
  • Good followers will defend their leaders when they encounter complaints being made behind the leader’s back. But they will also respectfully challenge a leader if they present questionable ideas or behavior.
  • Good followers will strive to be self-aware and seek feedback on their performance so that they can identify both strengths and areas for growth.
  • Good followers may have their own interests, such as personal growth—but they ensure that their interests align with the mission of an organization, rather than compete with it.

How can leaders cultivate good followership in their teams?

There are many steps you can take to cultivate good followership, but Windham says understanding, acknowledging, and validating the values of your followers is key. “You want to genuinely become interested in the things that are important to your followers,” he says. “Then you can build relationships on that understanding.” Building genuine relationships based on your understanding of your followers’ values will help you cultivate trust, meet your followers’ unique needs, and ultimately lead your followers toward specific goals.

The values your followers hold will be both personal (e.g. family, travel, flexibility) and professional (e.g. development opportunities, an inclusive workplace, teambuilding), and in today’s society, the values our followers hold are incredibly diverse. But at the end of the day, it’s all about relationships, Windham says: “It’s about identifying who you are, who your followers are, and how those relationships work with each other.”

Level up your leadership skills at Bethel University by pursuing an MBA or a leadership foundations certificate. You’ll further develop your self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and the competencies necessary to lead people and organizations in new directions. 


Chaleff, Ira. (2009). The Courageous Follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Riggio, R. E., Chaleff, I., & Lipman-Blumen, J. (Eds.). (2008). The Art of Followership: How great followers create great leaders and organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.