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Gray Rule
January 2011 | VOLUME 12, NUMBER 1spacer
Gray Rule
Book Review: Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders


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Reviewed by John E. Duvall, Administrative Analyst, Hogan Lovells US LLP, Washington, DC
Book Review: Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders
By Barbara Kellerman, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2008 - Departing from the leader-centric approach that often dominates thinking about leadership ....

Business writers and scholars have written much over the years on leaders and leadership, while largely neglecting those who follow and support leaders. Even though the focus has been almost exclusively on leaders, followers are "every bit as important as are leaders," (p. xviii) according to Barbara Kellerman. We tend to focus on leaders to help explain an otherwise confusing world. We often commit "the leader attribution error," (p. 11) assuming that leaders are solely responsible for everything that happens on their watch, as if Adolf Hitler had personally killed each and every one of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. Strong leaders, like Hitler and "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap (former CEO of Scott Paper and then Sunbeam, famous for decreeing massive layoffs), tend to overshadow everyone else who supports them. It was, in fact, the Holocaust that made scholars ask why followers follow. Stanley Milgram's experiments show that only a few will defy authority (refuse to inflict pain on another in this case) even when they believe that they are being asked to do something morally wrong.

Followers do, however, have more power now than they had before. Until the 1960s, superiors were expected to and generally did control their subordinates. The '60s challenged in multiple and profound ways the existing order, and we are still feeling the effects. The information revolution has made information easier to obtain and harder to keep secret, so more people have access to more of it. Knowledge and expertise can trump rank as a source of influence. People can more easily communicate their concerns and coordinate their responses. As a result, more people than before have access to power and influence. Followers now expect to have more of a say, and expect leadership to be more distributed. Leaders, finding their positions to be increasingly perilous, have to pay more attention to their followers. Still, any redistribution of power is nearly always contested.

The benefits of following may be less apparent than the benefits of leading, but they are nevertheless real. Going along is less costly and takes less effort than resisting. Followers can often get away with doing little of the collective work needed to maintain the group. In fact, going along is necessary most of the time, since it is impossible for everyone to be a leader. Hierarchies are essential, for they provide order, reduce tension, and make conflict rare. Experience shows that hierarchies and leaders emerge over time even in egalitarian groups that start out by rejecting them.

Leaders give individual followers safety, security, a sense of order, and a group to belong to. Leaders do the collective work of leading and maintaining the group. Leaders give groups structure, a goal, and ways to achieve the goal. The benefits are mutual, since leaders need followers as much as followers need leaders.

Relations between leaders and followers run the gamut from tyrants who compel compliance to genuine democrats who treat followers as partners. But it is also true that followers follow each other as much as they follow leaders, because of shared values and experience as well as the pressure to conform exerted by most groups.

But not all followers are alike. It is essential to distinguish between those who "mindlessly tag along" (p. 75) from followers who are deeply engaged. Kellerman's own typology classifies followers into five types along a single axis: their level of engagement, which can be either in support of or in opposition to their leaders (unlike some previous writers who distinguish between supporters and opponents). Isolates are completely detached from and uninterested by nature in the social contexts in which they work and live. Bystanders are aware of their surroundings but consciously choose to disengage from their leaders. Both, however, are effectively if unintentionally tacit supporters of the status quo. Participants clearly support (or oppose) their leaders. Activists are strongly engaged for (or against). Diehards are so devoted (or hostile) as to be completely consumed by their passion.

Kellerman devotes much of the book to detailed examinations of historical episodes that illustrate each type of follower. As examples of bystanders, for instance, she takes the many citizens of Germany during the Nazi era who, although they had no particular hatred of Jews, simply went about their daily lives and did nothing to oppose the regime or stop the Holocaust, and are, for her, at least partially responsible for it. She cites as counterexamples a few people who did do something, such as overtly protesting or covertly helping Jews.

As her example of activists, Kellerman takes the Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics in Boston who banded together in response to revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests, and who eventually forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston.

Kellerman freely admits, in the chapter on Nazi Germany and elsewhere, her bias against bystanders, whom she sees as free riders on the efforts of others. She does concede that we do not have enough time or energy to "support every worthy cause or step in every time someone somewhere ought to be doing something." (p. 98) And she points out that opposing authority can be risky and might cost us dearly, especially if we fail. Nevertheless she believes that doing something is better that doing nothing, and is a moral duty.

But if bystanders are nearly always bad followers, that doesn't necessarily mean that participants, activists, and diehards are always good followers. The two criteria for good followers are (1) being willing to engage and (2) supporting good, ethical, and effective leaders and opposing bad leaders. In other words, good followers support good leaders and oppose bad ones. Followers who oppose good leaders and support bad ones are bad followers. Opposing bad leaders (e.g., Adolf Hitler or Al Dunlap) is as much a moral duty as supporting good ones. In real life, of course, it isn't always clear, and people often vigorously disagree whether a particular leader should be supported or opposed.

Finally, leadership and followership should be seen "as inseparable, indivisible, inconceivable the one without the other." (p. 239) In fact, "followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers." (p. 242, italics in original) Furthermore followers often follow each other as much as or more than they follow a leader. While scholars and writers in the field have paid much attention to developing good leadership, they have not paid nearly enough attention to stopping bad leadership, even though bad leaders are everywhere. Although stopping bad leaders can be difficult and even dangerous, followers do have weapons, most importantly, as the example of Voice of the Faithful shows, the power of numbers.

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