Followers Get Their Day

At a time when executives are barraged with lessons on the art and science of leadership, management expert and Harvard lecturer Barbara Kellerman points out that you can’t have leaders without followers. In her new book, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, Kellerman argues that the power of the rank and file is critical to the success of an enterprise. Below is an excerpt from Followership.

The 21st century is destined to be different. Instead of leaders calling almost every shot, followers will have more of a say, more often, than they ever did before.

There has been a historical progression from times past, when the “great man” theory generally did apply, to now, when leaders are less able to be in complete control. The haves are more vulnerable now, especially leaders.

Followers came increasingly into their own beginning in the 1960s. Why? Because during the last half-century, there were two great changes, both favoring those of lower rank over those of higher. We now take for granted many attitudes and behaviors first associated with the counterculture. The 1960s and 1970s reinforced the unbridled individualism that Tocqueville had described more than a hundred years before.

The sociopolitical turmoil during the 1960s and 1970s was nothing if not inclusive. Whatever the impetus for change, it came from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Those who debate the ’60s and ’70s generally agree that they engaged the ideals of freedom and equality with a vigor that was rarely seen before and has not been seen since. Moreover, the multiple challenges to the existing order were so pervasive, and so persuasive, that it finally became impossible to return to what was. It is not as if the relationship between those with power, authority and influence and those without was turned on its head. But it was a time during which the playing field was leveled, at least somewhat.

An expert on leadership and management by the name of Harlan Cleveland was among the first to explore the connection between leading and managing on the one hand and the information revolution on the other. He was prescient about the degree to which power would be more diffuse. More precisely, it would trickle down, away from leaders and toward followers.

Cleveland understood that information, not things, had become the world’s most powerful resource. But unlike things–land, for example–information is impossible to hoard. It expands as it is used. It is easily transportable. It is transparent. And it leaks: The more we have, the more of us have it. Here, according to Cleveland, are just some of the implications of the information revolution, for leaders and followers in particular.

  • Nobody anywhere will be in complete charge of anything.
  • Diversity will change our conception of who can, and should, lead.
  • Claims by disadvantaged majorities around the world will no longer be so easily denied.
  • Followers everywhere will “get to the policy answers before their leaders do.”

It was, Cleveland concluded, “the spread of knowledge” that would enable followers to play a much more powerful role in the future than they did in the past.

Cleveland built on a distinction that [famed management consultant] Peter Drucker had made in 1966, between what he labeled “manual workers” and “knowledge workers.” In knowledge economies, competence can and often does trump position as an indictor of who in fact is leading and who is following. For both superiors and their subordinates, the importance of competence, of expertise, changes not only the dynamic between them, but also our conception of what leading and following actually entail.

The Internet in particular has changed the dynamic between those who hold positions of power and authority and those who do not. In the broader realm of information and ideas, the picture we have had in our mind’s eye, of the individual expert as a figure of authority, is becoming similarly antiquated.


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CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight offers thought leadership and best practices in the IT security and management industry while providing expert recommendations on software solutions for IT leaders. It is the trusted resource for security professionals who need network monitoring technology and solutions to maintain regulatory compliance for their teams and organizations.

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