Written by Dave Wegge

Leadership has paid significant attention to the COVID 19 pandemic.  Leaders in the public arena from the President down to local leaders are trying to navigate this ever-changing environment. Nonprofit leaders are working diligently to respond to the needs of their clients.  Business leaders are scrambling to serve their customers, some to even save their business. 

The study of leadership has a vast history. If you Google “leadership,” you are presented with 3.1 billion sources. There are volumes upon volumes that address the concept of leadership. Leadership, however, does not function in a vacuum. In order for there to be leaders, there must also be followers. This raises a critical question, what is the role of followers in the leadership system?

Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, introduced me to the concept of Followership when she was a guest lecturer at St. Norbert College a few years ago. One of her points was that we have focused so much attention on leadership, that the role of followers and the context within which leadership takes place has been diminished.  Listen to a podcast interview with Kellerman.

However, there is a growing body of literature in the past few years that does focus on followership. The International Leadership Association (ILA) has even created the Followership Member Community, a group of academicians and practitioners who engage in studying followership. One of the sources that is perhaps most relevant in our current times is the work of Ira Chaleff in his book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders.  In this work Chaleff identifies five dimensions of courageous followership. Many of Chaleff’s five dimensions mirror characteristics that Kellerman identifies in her work on followership. Courageous followers are those who:

  • Assume responsibility and empower themselves in the Leaders-Follower relationship.
  • Challenge the leader when they feel the policies or behaviors of the leader conflict with their sense of what is right.
  • Standup for the leader when the leader must make tough decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. 
  • Participate in the transformation of the organization when change is needed. Courageous followers are loyal to the whole over the individual.
  • Engage in moral actions. They know when they must take a stand when their view is different than the leader’s even if it may come at significant personal costs to them.

In the current environment, do we see the expression of Courageous Followership? How can Courageous Followership impact the challenges we face? As our leaders strive to deal with the COVID 19 challenge  or for that matter, any number of other challenges that they face, have we been Courageous Followers?

Sources for consideration

Chaleff, Ira. The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, Third Edition (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009).

Kellerman, Barbara. Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Harvard Business Review Press, 2004).

Ibid.  Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business Review Press, 2008).

Ibid.  Phronesis:  Practical Wisdom for Leaders, 2020.

Riggio, Ronald E.,  Chaleff, Ira, &  Lipman-Blumen, Jean. The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations (Jossey-Bass, 2008).