A symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers

Organizations are constantly faced with the need to transform to survive in today’s environment in which change is perceived as incessant. The organizations that survive and remain viable will likely be those led by effective leaders. Winston and Patterson define a leader as anyone who selects, trains, equips, and influences one or more followers to work toward the achievement of the organization’s mission and goals. (2003). How do leaders create successful organizations? Kelley (2003) postulated that the effectiveness of a leader depends on the contribution of the followers, in other words, a leader is as effective as the followers allow it. While a lot of work and research has been done to highlight the importance of leadership in the organization, there seems to be not enough research regarding the remarkable contribution of followers to the organization. Kelley in her book, “The Power of Followers” states that few people have studied tracking; instead, the focus has always been on leadership. If leaders are to create successful organizations, they must recognize that followers are the organization’s most essential resource and that only by understanding the needs of their followers can they achieve organizational success. How can leaders channel their focus on followers to maximize organizational success?

Leadership theories continue to evolve even as leaders continue in their quest to achieve and maintain organizational success. The focus of organizational success has resided for decades on leaders. Kelley notes that the term follower, over the years, has been considered inferior to organizational success. That stigma created a false hierarchical description that made the leaders’ position more worthy of consideration. Therefore, leaders were viewed as the means to the end of organizational success. Current research by scholars such as Chaleff and Kelley has challenged this viewpoint by emphasizing that unless leaders are supported by strong followers, organizational success is not possible. Kotter corroborates these findings by reiterating that the complexity of the contemporary organization prevents it from being transformed by a single giant. He went on to state that leadership efforts must have the support of followers for success to be a possibility. Without the participation of supporters, the implementation of organizational decisions will not be promising. Followers, according to Kelley, make up 80-90% of the organization. He went on to identify different types of followers: conformist, pragmatic, passive, or exemplary. Whereas psychoanalysts like Fromm see these styles as a result in part of one’s personality; Kelley went on to explain that leaders who spend time analyzing each of their followers will find that each follower style is the result of unmet expectations and mistrust, or a leader’s leadership style. Conformist followers can be defined as those followers who will not defy the organization’s norm for fear of retaliation, but prefer to be “yes” men; Conformist followers cannot function optimally in a climate where change is the norm. According to Kelley, for organizations to be successful, leaders need followers who are willing to challenge the status quo and not simply be men who say “yes.” Another type of followers are the pragmatists, these followers are created by unstable organizations. Kelley went on to say that leaders who promote transactional relationships with followers encourage pragmatism, as these followers will choose to be obedient and subservient to keep their job. Leaders can also create passive followers. Passive followers are not given any sense of autonomy, so they feel comfortable being led. Then there are the exemplary followers, these followers are proactive and creative; They bring innovation to organizations and are willing to spend their talents for the good of the organization. Recognizing the variety of followers that operate within the organization; Leaders now have the power to create and maximize the potential of followers in order to create successful organizations. How?

As the featured organization goes through different stages, at each stage of the organization, leaders should expect to find followers with different styles. When leaders can identify the style exhibited by followers, they can tailor their leadership style to efficiently and effectively help followers build and maintain successful organizations. Organizations that are in their early stages, as Daft referred to the entrepreneurial stage, this stage requires followers who are creative and innovative. Now it becomes the leader’s job to transform workers who are anything but exemplary into followers who are willing to explore their creativity. This stage of the organization requires leaders who are multifaceted in their leadership style. As the organization moves toward the collectivity stage, it requires leadership that is flexible enough to allow employees to explore scope while providing motivation and direction. Strong charismatic leadership comes in handy during this period (Daft, 2007). The final stage is the period of formalization and elaboration, this period consists of continuous change and requires leaders who are good at enforcing rules and regulations but who at the same time recognize that followers should not be treated as an expendable resource. Leaders who ignore the less-than-ideal follower style will continue to fuel their dysfunction and encourage followers to exhibit less innovation. The end result is a failed or unsuccessful organization. One of the greatest applications of multi-style leadership can be found in one of the Pauline Epistles. The apostle Paul is revered today as one of the greatest leaders within the Christian community, looking at 1 Corinthians 9: 19-22, he provided us with a vivid example of how leaders must adjust their styles to those of their followers in order to create a successful organization. In each verse, Paul adapted his style as needed so that his followers could maximize their potential, eventually helping him achieve organizational success. Therefore, leaders are now tasked with employing a multiple leadership style model that should successfully combat each follow-up style for the good of the organization. Multiple leadership style requires more than one leadership style when making a decision, the leader can assess the situation and then strategically apply the style necessary to influence the condition.

Contemporary organizations demand effective leadership to be successful. Successful leadership does not depend solely on the leaders, but represents the quality of the symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers. Ultimately, great leaders are the product of great followers. Therefore, a key ingredient that should determine the style of a leader is that of his followers. One size does not fit all; hence it is important for leaders to adapt their style to maximize the capabilities of their followers. This can be done effectively when leaders are fully aware of the style of their followers and can then adjust their approach accordingly. The multifaceted model is useful because it recognizes the different challenges at different stages within the organization; recognizes that leadership styles must be adapted to each stage of the organization; and finally it recognizes that followers are the channels through which organizational successes are made, as such leaders must, in their quest to create successful organizations, adjusting their styles accordingly.


Chaleff, I. (2003). The Brave Follower, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA.

Daft, RL, (2006). Organizational Theory and Design. (Ninth ed.). Thompson South-Western, Cincinnati, OH.

Kelley, R. (1992), The Power of Followership, Doubleday, New York, NY.

Kotter, J. (2006), Change of strategic balance, a key factor in modern management, 2006 Vol. 11, N ° 1.

Morgan, G. (2006). Organization images (Updated Ed.). Sage Publications,

Thousand Oaks, CA.

Boerner, S., Eisenbeiss, A. and Griesser, D. (2006). Follower Behavior and Organizational Performance: The Impact of Transformational Leaders. Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies, 2006, vol. 13, No. 3.

Sullivan, G. Leadership is Creating a Future for Your Organization, obtained November 10, 2007,


Winston, B., Patterson, K. (2005), Integrated Definition of Leadership, retrieved November 11, 2007, http://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/ijls/new/vol1iss2/winston_patterson. doc / winston_patterson.htm.

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