One critique of leadership studies has been that followers are receiving inadequate attention, both as research subjects and as complex active participants in the leadership process. In response to this critique, a few scholars have attempted to carry out more follower-centric studies of leadership, sometimes referred to as followership studies.
In a recently published article (Leadership 2018, 14(1): 3-24), Jackie Ford and Nancy Harding suggest that leadership theories developed from the perspective of the followers all contain one tragic flaw. They are based on an implicit theory of followership that assumes leaders and followers serve a common purpose, and followers are for the most part passive and helpless conformers, in need of persuasion or coercion in order to take action.
Implicit theories are those we take for granted, but are often unable to fully articulate. We develop them almost unconsciously throughout our early lives, from our families, our teachers, the television shows and movies we watch, current events, and many other aspects of our culture.
Ford and Harding explore three influential approaches to leadership, in order to determine if and how the ways in which followership is conceptualized in the end serve to undermine the very theories being proposed.
Bass and Steidlmeier advocate for something they call authentic transformational leadership, whereby leaders influence followers to undergo a personal transformation through which they take on the characteristics of the leader, thus in a sense becoming leaders themselves. They differentiate between authentic and pseudo-authentic leaders based on the presence or absence of a moral foundation (whatever that might mean), but how is a follower to determine whether in fact a leader possesses that moral foundation, or is merely acting as if they do? This approach assumes that followers are empty vessels waiting to be filled by the leader, but if the leader is successful then there will no longer be any followers and hence no need for a leader.
Gronn wants to eliminate the dichotomy between leader and follower, advocating for a notion of distributed leadership in which everyone works together to carry out an organizations mission. In this approach leadership becomes a product of cooperative action, rather than an input. So, beyond eliminating the roles of leader and follower, is there still a need for a concept of leadership if it is only recognized after the fact? Further, the approach is based on the assumption that everyone in the organization shares a common vision and is willing and able to work together – a sort of state of perpetual happiness and positivity. If leadership is distributed, then to be a follower would mean that one has chosen not to participate, thereby positioning oneself as negative and destructive to the environment.
Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership retains the roles of leader and follower, but also introduces the idea of the servant, who in many ways is the genuine leader, without any reference to their position in the organization. Servants are able to respond to the needs of an organization, because they are somehow capable of moving beyond the flawed attitudes and behavior of others, to offer what is really needed to benefit the collective. These rare individuals have no desire to lead, or to be given credit. They are somehow morally superior to the unsophisticated and brutish masses around them. If the need arises they simply feel obligated to respond.
While there is much more that could be said about the three approaches, Ford and Harding suggest that they all fail to move beyond the power differential set up in traditional leadership theories in which the leader is in some way superior to, and therefore has influence over, the followers. Followers come across as fundamentally bad, or at least empty, waiting to be filled, corrected, and oriented by the leader. No attempt to alter terminology, eliminate followers, or eliminate leaders, manages to escape the bonds of this implicit theory of followership.