• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Emergence of Followership - Part 2

Emerging Understandings about Followership

In the last hundred years, extensive leadership studies have been conducted exploring a wide variety of leadership characteristics and situations, however as Yukl (2010) explains, “only a small amount of research and theory emphasizes the characteristics of followers” (Yukl, 2010, p. 39). There is a growing realization that leadership is a process of interaction between leaders and followers, in which the dynamics of followership are as important as the dynamics of leadership.


Honor Guard image represents Empowerment of Followers
Full Honors Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Empowerment of Followers

While studying several distinct leadership styles in 1969, Hersey & Blanchard posited that effective leaders vary their leadership style to best fit the particular situation. “For leaders to be effective, it is essential that they determine where followers are on the developmental continuum and adapt their leadership roles so they directly match their style to that developmental level” (Northouse, 2013, p. 97). The (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969) life-cycle theory of leadership model describes leadership in terms of relationship behavior and task behavior and then attempts to match those leadership styles to a “readiness level” or continuum of follower maturity. From this perspective, it becomes important for the leader to assist the process of developing greater follower maturity, empowering followers to be more self-directing and autonomous, thus achieving more organizational goals with relatively less leader effort.


Path-Goal Theory

In the early 1970’s House proposed the path-goal theory of leadership. His concern was how the leader affected the motivation and satisfaction of followers. “The path-goal theory is about how leaders motivate followers to accomplish designated goals” (Northouse, 2013, p. 116). This research considered the need for followers to feel affiliated with the organization, their preferences for structure and control, and their perceptions of their own ability to accomplish tasks. House (1996) explains that the path-goal theory “is a dyadic theory of supervision in that it does not address the effect of leaders on groups or work units, but rather the effects of superiors on subordinates” (p. 325). In a manner similar to the situational leadership model, the path-goal theory suggests that the leader must moderate or alter the leadership style to accommodate the follower’s abilities, thus increasing follower satisfaction and work performance.


Attributes of Followers

In both the situational leadership model and the path-goal theory, follower behavior is often viewed as suboptimal or immature, and thus as a problem to be overcome. Bass (1995) explains that his research led him in the mid-1980s to “conclude that high-level transformational executives could move followers to exceed expectations-to generate extra effort, creativity, and productivity” (1995, p. 468). His theory of transformational leadership seeks to explain how leaders empower followers to transcend their own self-interests and strive towards the idealized goals of the organization. Transformational leadership represents a tremendous paradigm shift in the understanding of followers in an organization. The emerging understanding is that leaders who “wish to enhance employee satisfaction and organizational commitment should be capable of communicating enthusiasm about organizational objectives…and making employees feel that they are participants in the transformation of the organization” (Castro, et al, 2008, p. 1858). The realization that followers are more than just inputs into a system of production, but are in fact essential to any undertaking, led to an even more profound conceptualization of the relationship between leaders and followers.


Servant Leadership

First proposed by Greenleaf in the 1970s, the concept of servant leadership continues to develop and it represents a profound shift from earlier thinking about the nature of leadership. “Putting followers first is the defining characteristic of servant leadership. It means using actions and words that clearly demonstrate to followers that their concerns are a priority, including placing followers’ interests and success ahead of those of the leader” (Northouse, 2013, p. 234). The practice of servant leadership requires a diametrically different set of leader behaviors than the earlier trait approaches that focused on power and domination. As Patterson (2003) explains, “servant leadership encompasses seven virtuous constructs, these are; agapao love, humility, altruism, vision, trust, empowerment, and service” (p.3). The servant leadership approach seeks first to focus on follower performance and growth, placing these above the leader’s own needs. The resulting outcomes sought are enhanced organizational performance as well a positive societal impact.


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