The Symbiosis of Leadership and Followership

April 17, 2023
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • Leadership
Group of hikers supporting each other in their goal to reach the summit.

By Tammy Aagard, Ed.D, Senior Consultant, AACRAO

The noted leadership author John Maxwell stated If you think you're leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk. The symbiotic relationship between leadership and followership is something that is often left out of graduate programs in leadership. Creating a culture where following is valued is the responsibility of good leaders. All leaders are followers of someone so developing good followership skills is as important as flexing leadership muscles.

In a 2009 book titled The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff explained the important role of followers in standing up to and for leaders. Chaleff developed a quadrant along two axes, challenge, and support. Followers were categorized based on how high/low they were in supporting the leader and how high/low they were in challenging the leader. 

  • A follower who is low in support and low in challenging the leader is seen as a resource.
  • A follower who is high in support and low in challenging is an implementer.
  • A follower who is low in support and high in challenging is an individualist.
  • A follower who is high in support and high in challenging is a partner.

Selecting and developing a leadership team and then anchoring them around a common goal/purpose is the charge of the leader. It requires clear communication regarding the goal and a willingness to listen. Leaders must be humble enough to see criticism of their ideas through the lens of making things better. Creating a culture where support and challenge of leadership is valued is critical to developing a strong, effective leadership team.

Followers must have the courage and humility to serve; the confidence to challenge and provide honest feedback; the commitment to the organization and its goals; and the strong moral character to identify areas of concern and communicate the potential harm to the organization. Identifying where the follower is on Chaleff’s quadrant and if found lacking in the balance of the support and challenging scale, deciding to change or move on to another position requires reflection and self-awareness.

In his book titled, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell defined the “Law of Significance.” This law outlines the need of others to achieve any great thing. He states that any dream that can be achieved by one person is too small. Creating a team of talented leaders and followers united around a common dream should be the ultimate goal. Fostering a culture of support and authentic questioning of ideas helps organizations achieve its goals and aspirations. Yet sustained success will require strong leadership and just as strong followership over the long run.


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