Is Followership More Important than Leadership?

By Kevin on August 27, 2013 in employee engagement, leadership

The following is a guest post by Dr. Jon Warner, Editor-In-Chief of

It’s a fairly obvious fact that every leader needs a follower (as the proverb says: “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk”). However, while we have a huge amount of writing about the concept of leadership, there is very little written about the concept of followership, or why people choose to follow a given leader. This article therefore aims, in a very small way to redress this imbalance.

In his recent book “The Righteous Mind”, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that “focusing on leadership alone is like trying to understand clapping by studying only the left hand.” The real puzzle, he suggests is not why people want to lead, it’s why they want to follow.

Haidt suggests that people will follow pretty much any leader who establishes three important criteria:

  • First he or she must establish why he/she legitimately is cast in this leadership role or is a credible authority figure for this group of potential followers.
  • Secondly, a would-be leader needs to convey that his or her leadership will be fair/just and will not oppress individuals in the follower group (who might then start to band together to resist some leadership actions if this were the case).
  • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he or she must make a convincing argument that loyalty to his or her leadership is a requirement of fellowship (put simply there must be one leader to whom people are true).

Once these three preliminary steps have been consciously and clearly taken, follower cohesiveness can be built by a few further actions, which will progressively build the particular team:

1. Increasing similarity and not diversity

Haidt suggests that followers want to feel like a large family. A family would not draw attention to racial, ethnic, age or any other equivalent differences in team members, but would stress similarities and shared values. Although they appear a little shallow, team dress codes (even broadly based ones), team-based jargon and acronyms and team celebrations (of birthdays for example) can all help a leader’s followers to like that they dress in similar ways, talk in common ways or celebrate an event in a similar way (and that is common to the whole team and a little different from other teams, even inside the same organization).

2. Exploit “synchrony”

Haidt’s concept of “synchrony” is best illustrated by what many Japanese companies do with morning exercises for the team. This helps bind the team through the vehicle of the often repeated event and shared experience. Think of the New Zealand “All Blacks” team doing the Haka before every game for example-well worth watching on you tube, if you’ve never seen this. Of course, morning exercises or singing the team/company song may not work that well in the western world. Social events with the team (sports, parties or Karaoke after work, one a week/month can create “synchrony” just as well.

3. Create healthy competition among teams, not individuals

Haidt suggest that soldiers do not risk their lives for the army as a whole or their country but for their friends in the same platoon. As a result, friendly inter-team rivalries are worth setting up deliberately (table tennis or darts or quizzes) not because it matters who wins but because it increases the sense of team and cohesiveness of followers. The more this is done, the less competition occurs between individuals on the same team and trust and morale levels typically soar.


Haidt’s theory suggests that most leadership in practice is “transactional” or leads people individually, mainly with stick and carrot approaches which appeal to self-interest. However, if we adopt the above approach when we want to build strong followership in a team, we need to apply “transformational” leadership, using a lot of “we” instead of “I” language. This helps individual followers to quickly see themselves as part of a bigger whole. In this way, followers are more likely to see themselves as “members”, and that’s a critical change in mentality and one which can create much greater team success.

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organisational Psychology. Jon is Editor-in-chief of ReadyToManage, Inc. and can be reached at [email protected]

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