Most of the leadership academic literature focuses on the leader.  However, leadership is also “an experience undergone by followers” (Kupers, 2007, p.195).  Leadership “emerges in the mind of followers” (Meindl, 1993, p.99). Sanford states that “leadership is a relation between leader and follower” (Sanford, 1958, p.257).  The later statement is probably the most insightful.  There are many ways in which followers individually and as a group influence the behavior and effectiveness of a leader and the team.

Because followers tend to see the role of leaders as either authoritarian or equalitarian, their bias or needs determine the type of leader-follower relationship that they are ready to accept and operate within.  However, “situationally determined needs” (Sanford, 1958, p.258), such as a business goal, tends to trump steady-state needs.  Sanford postulates that the more important the goal of the team and the more visible the progress toward the goal is, the more likely that a follower will rely on the leader for authoritarian leadership and forego the steady-state needs of the follower.

It is possible for a leader to be considered a great leader by both authoritarians and equalitarians if the leader and team has produced results.  However, the reasons for the assessment are based on different criteria.  The authoritarian considers the team’s “materially beneficial accomplishments” (Sanford, 1958, p. 258) as reflective of the leadership; whereas, the equalitarian sees the quality of the leader-follower relationships as the as reflective of the leadership.

I think that a skilled leader knows enough about her followers to ascertain which camp her followers are in and use that knowledge to tailor her influence on the leader-follower relationship.  In addition, I think that a skilled leader can combine individual consideration of a follower’s needs and more structure when needed.

Greene (1958) says that a lack of follower performance is likely to encourage the leader to shift toward structured (i.e. less considered) behavior.   So, to a degree, the follower has an influence over the leader-follower relationship and, therefore, the degree of transformative leadership.

I personally agree with Fleishman and Harris (1962), who say that there is a kind of consideration bank account between the leader and follower (i.e. something similar to a love bank between husband and wife), that can be drawn on for leeway in initiating any temporarily required structure.

Hollander (19..) points out that today’s increased diversity in the workplace requires more focus on relationships between leader and follower and more individual consideration.  He sees leadership and followership as “reciprocal systems requiring synchronization” (p. 256).  Synchronization occurs through the “leader attributes as perceived by the followers” and the compensating responses of the followers.  I think looking at the leader-follower relationship as a system is very helpful, if made more complex because of a predominance of human factors.

Legitimacy of the leadership in the eyes of the followers is a key factor in the synchronization of the leader-follower system (Hollander, 19  ).  Initially, the follower sees how the leader was chosen as the basis for legitimacy.  If the leader was elected, the followers feel more responsible, and therefore more invested, in the leadership.

Hollander also sees a type of credibility bank, similar to Greene’s consideration bank, operating in the leader-follower system.  I find this bank concept very interesting, as it manifests itself as a buffer (or time delay) in many areas of human interaction and is simultaneously a fundamental component in system thinking.

In such a systems approach, it becomes clear that “misperceptions of others’ perceptions” (Hollander, 1992, p. 47) as a leadership challenge.  To that degree, an important followership attribute is good communication with the leader about synchronization issues.

Hollander believes that charisma of a leader is really a reflection of the followers’ desires.  Because some leaders do not perceive it that way, they can become narcissistic.  He believes that charismatic imagery is too often “elevated above performance” (1992, p.48), and the emotional framework of charismatic leadership provide “ample opportunities for abuse” (1992, p.48).

Howell and Shamir (2005) have a lot to say about charismatic leadership, but their views are more complimentary of the concept.  When analyzing the leader-follower relationship, Graen’s leader-member exchange (LMX) approach (1976) is unique in its focus on the importance of the follower in the relationship.  However, as a study of followership, Howell and Shamir believe it is lacking in that 1) the “follower domain has remained relatively underdeveloped” (2005, p. 97), 2) it focuses on the development of dyadic relationships (i.e. one leader with one follower), and 3) it is a “gradual leadership-making model” (2005, p.98).  Howell and Shamir believe a lot can be learned about charismatic leadership by studying the relationship between a leader and his followers as a group.

I think this issue is the basis for a lot of the academic literature cautioning against charismatic leadership.  They seem to equate the moral value of charismatic relationship between a leader and a follower and the value of a charismatic relationship between a leader and the group as a whole.  Perhaps they are concerned about “group think”.

I believe charismatic leadership is important to an organization.  Charismatic leader-follower relationships are important to understand because it is under these relationships that the follower is more willing to put the leader’s mission and vision above their own interests and to internalize the leader’s goals, demonstrating strong commitment to them.

According to Howell and Shamir, followers’ self-concepts play a key part in how they engage the leader in the leader-follower relationship (2005).  They categorize charismatic leader-follower relationships into two types – personalized and socialized.

Personalized relationships enhance the self-concept of the follower and the leader, whereas socialized relationships enhance the group as a whole.  Followers identify themselves with the leader, the group, and the mission (in variable and individualistic degrees).  Brewer and Gardener (1996) see these as aligned with the three “loci of self” (p.547): individual, interpersonal, and group member.  (Personal note: perhaps this is related to MLK’s Three Dimensions of a Complete Life (i.e. loving one’s self, loving others, and loving God)).  Howell & Shamir include individual and interpersonal loci into the personalized relationship category and the locus of group member into the socialized relationship category (2005).

The three loci of self will likely determine the follower’s engagement in the leader-follower relationship.  For example, the relational self needs to establish and maintain an interpersonal relationship with the leader.  This part of the follower wants to nurture his/her relationship with the leader.  The group member self identifies with the group prototype and seeks to enhance the group’s status by improving the group’s performance relative to the group prototypes of other groups.  Which of these self-concepts are strongest in the follower determines the dominant perception of leadership quality.  In other words, if the personalized need is stronger, the follower will judge a leader strong if the follower can personally identify with the leader.  If the social/group need is stronger, the follower will judge the leader strong if the follower perceives the leader as identifying with the group prototype.  (Personal note: I believe this explains why when follower and leader are both strong in group self-concept the follower is more committed to the group goal.)

Howell & Shamir postulate that if a follower is too strong in personalized self-concept he/she identifies less with the leader’s message than with the leader, thereby “lacking a strong internal reference point” and becomes more vulnerable to a bad leader’s message and influence (i.e. a more dangerous relationship for the organization) (2005).  On the other hand, a follower strong in a group self-concept is less vulnerable to a bad leader’s message and influence if it is different from the group prototype.  To me, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the group’s message is more likely to be what the organization wants to achieve.  But, it definitely explains why it requires a talented leader indeed that can have a personal message different from the group prototype if the group is made up of primarily group self-conceptual followers.

The literature seems to promote the idea that a follower with a weak or less clarified personalized self-concept is more vulnerable to a leader’s message (Freemesser & Kaplan, 1976,; Galanter, 1982; Erikson, 1980; Fromm, 1971).  Indeed, Howell & Shamir (2005) postulate that personalized charismatic leader-follower relationships are more likely to result in organizationally harmful consequences.  And, many people think that this type of relationship, which may be more emotionally based is somehow less advantageous to an organization.  However, I propose that, although it may be true that followers with a weak personalized self-concept are more vulnerable to a leader’s message, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  If the leader has a message that the group as a whole doesn’t agree with, the excess influence of the leader can be an asset.  It can be said, furthermore, that the type of leader-follower relationship, and therefore the strategy of an effective leader, will be different if a follower has a strong, clear self-concept than if the follower has a weak, unclarified self-concept, and will be different if a follower has a personalized self-concept versus a predominantly socialized self-concept.  In addition, a leader with high emotional intelligence can (and should) use his follower’s emotions as a tool to further the team’s goals.  An ineffective leader is one who interacts with all followers in the same manner.  This is why transformational leadership’s individualized consideration is so vitally important to that leadership school.

A personal observation is that, since followers with a more personalized self-concept are likely to establish a charismatic relationship with a leader quickly, followers with a more socialized self-concept are likely to establish a charismatic relationship with a leader more gradually, only as he/she learns how the leader’s values and beliefs synchronize with the group.  This allows for the possibility that the group’s values and beliefs can be changed toward the leader’s values and beliefs.  Indeed, positive follower responses are necessary to maintain charismatic leadership (Howell & Shamir, 2005).  So, if the leader is unsuccessful in getting message synchronization with the group, the team may fail to reach its objective.  I guess to that end, it is best if a follower has a balance of personalized and socialized self-concepts in order for the leader to be able to change the group’s values and beliefs. If the group is “on board” from the beginning, then the leader’s charisma may be sufficient to insure group performance.

Personally, the idea of the three loci of selves resonates with me.  Martin Luther King, Jr. says the “complete life” has equal balance between the dimensions of love for self, love for others, and love for God.  I believe there is some fundamental human truth about this.  To that end, I think it may be best if a leader can operate in all three dimensions, with both consideration of the follower and the group as a whole, and craft his deliberate behavior to lead his team to success.

And, for the follower, I think they have an obligation to be balanced between the three dimensions as well.  In addition, I agree with Kelley (1996) that critical thinking and participation are essential for good followership.  It is vitally important that the follower communicates well enough with the leader that he/she knows the leadership perception of the follower.  Engagement in the leader-follower relationship is the most important activity for the follower.  It provides a framework within which the work can get done in a peaceful manner.  And, critical thinking is essential for productive and innovative work on behalf of the team’s goals, as well as useful for not following a bad leader off the edge of a cliff.



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Kelley, R. (1996). In praise of followers.  Military leadership: In pursuit of excellence (3rd ed.), edited by Robert L. Taylor and William E. Rosenbach, pp. 136-137.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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Pierce, J. L., & Newstrom, J. W. (2011). Leaders & the leadership process: Readings, self-assessments, & applications (6th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Irwin.  – READING 22, 23, 24, 32, 38

Sanford, F. (1958). The follower’s role in leadership phenomena.  Readings in social psychology, pp.257-259).  New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.