Often, leadership and followership seem self-explanatory: Leaders lead, followers follow, and everyone gets along, and everything changes for the better (Burns, 2003, p. 170). In reality, the distinction and characteristics between leadership and followership are much more nuanced. We may sometimes think that the only critical or integral part of the functioning of a group or organization is its leader (Burns, 2003, p. 171). However, followers play just as critical a component as leaders do, maybe even more so, in some senses – can you be a leader if no one follows, backs, or believes in your stance?
“…the role of followers – their picking up the cues of leaders, the quality of their response, their continued pressure on leaders – remains crucial at every stage of the process. Leaders may become merely enhancers in the continuing evolution of followers (Burns, 2003, p. 171-172).”
Bearing this in mind, we take the presidency of FDR into consideration: with hope for what could be, FDR was voted in as President and began a vigorous plan of action in the first 100 days of his presidency to enact level change and compromise (Burns, 2003, p. 172). Though supporters at first, Huey P. Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and Dr. Francis Townsend were indicators of the pulse of FDR’s success, quickly becoming disenchanted with the progress made (Burns, 2003, p. 173). As initial followers, they had the ability to know and understand their core values, and worked toward establishing them in the most beneficial way possible – by listening to and engaging with those around them who suffered or were left out in some way by the new changes. In seeking to establish necessary change, they became leaders themselves and helped work to transform the lives of subsequent followers, as well (Burns, 2003, p. 173-175).
Looking at the Psychology of leadership and followership, research indicates there must be reciprocity for the success and empowerment of leaders and followers alike (Lapierre, Bremner, McMullan, 2012). The nature of followers’ actions and attitudes toward their work, as well as the leader, affects the overall functioning of the organization, their progress, and the well-being and mindset of the leader (Lapierre et al., 2012). Followers who may disempower their leader are more likely to be met with Personalized Charismatic Leadership that is coercion, threats, or punishments to followers for their lack of action, support, or motivation (Lapierre et al., 2012). Conversely, leaders who feel empowered, understood, and cared for by their followers are more likely to engage in practices, attitudes, and actions that perpetuate charisma, understanding, and relationality between all members of the group (Lapierre et al., 2012). Thus, the role of both leader and follower are integral here in feeding off of each other to gauge well-being, the state of their relationships, progress, and motivations. Yes, the leader takes the initiative in what the group works toward but the followers are at the helm, navigating which turns to take next and which endeavors will be most beneficial to all involved. By knowing, understanding, and listening to each other, they become the pulse of the organization and its guiding force.
In my own leadership and followership, I realize that I tend to view myself, at times, as a passive follower in creating change. Often, I do not think of myself or the things I seek to change and shape in broad, compelling terms. Sometimes, I am more comfortable being a passenger on the boat to progress, rather than its captain. And sometimes, I do not want to be the leader because I do not think I have the zeal, gumption, or charisma to lead others, create meaningful change, or make some small corner of the world a better, more joyful, loving, compassionate, and understanding place. Thus, I think it can be easy for many of us who feel this way to not believe that we have anything of substance to offer to the conversation of leadership. However, what we find in these paragraphs is encouragement and empowerment to voice our values, beliefs, and those of others around us because they do, in fact, have substance and worth. With all this, in my leadership, I want to be more understanding and open to reciprocity with those around me, and as a follower, be more vocal and encourage others to do the same.
Lastly, in pursuing justice, progress, and change in our world, the reciprocity of leader and follower must be kept in mind. Highlighting this is the story of Walter McMillian, who was wrongly put on death row for crimes he did not commit (Stevenson, 2015, p. 19-22). The judge urged his lawyer to drop the case – there was to be no mistaking that Walter was an evil, corrupt criminal (Stevenson, 2015, p. 19-22). Upon further inspection, though, evidence showed Walter could not possibly have committed the crimes that had put him on death row, and with that, he was exonerated (Stevenson, 2015, p. 25-32). In our leadership and followership as Christians, we are called to seek righteousness and justice that empowers, encourages, and loves everyone around us – seeing past the labels forced onto them by those who selfishly believe their correctness is the be all, end all, absolute truth in the matter. We must be the pulse, the heartbeat, the ears, and the eyes of the world, listening to and meeting others where they are at. Every person has value, worth, and a story that needs to be told. If we shut our eyes and close our ears to each other, not only will we no longer be able to see the good and the potential in each other, but we will also no longer be able to see the beauty of Christ and our call to fellowship, discipleship, unity, and truth.
Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness (Vol. 213). Grove Press.
Lapierre, L. M., Bremner, N. L., & McMullan, A. D. (2012). Strength in numbers: How employees’ acts of followership can influence their manager’s charismatic leadership behavior. Zeitschrift Für Psychologie, 220(4), 251-261. doi:10.1027/2151-2604/a000119
Stevenson, B. (2015). Just mercy: A story of justice and redemption. Spiegel & Grau.