What if Everything Rises and Falls on Followership?

Dr. Jeff Suderman is an organizational development consultant and futurist. He helps organizations achieve their goals by enhancing or organizational health, focusing strategy and helping organizations be FutureReady. He is a father, husband, professor, speaker, leader and an active follower. Please check out his blog.

A well-worn leadership adage states that “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. I was once an ardent supporter of this belief. As an emerging leader, it made me feel important and it validated much of my work and academic career. After all, leaders make things happen!

As time passed, I came to an important realization – this statement is only a half-truth! In fact, I can only support the premise if it is coupled with my paradoxical title. If this was phrased as a logic statement it would read:

Everything rises and falls on leadership IS TRUE IF everything also rises and falls on followership.


In order to understand this supposition we must reframe followership and reclaim the full richness of this significant and powerful role. Here are three things we must do to accomplish this:

REFRAME 1: Lose the hierarchy

The term “follower is not synonymous with subordinate”.[1]

It is unfortunate that the word follower has become a word that connotes lack of power, subservience or a less desirable position. I recently heard someone tell their child, “You are a leader, not a follower!” While the intent of this is noble, it’s simply not true! We do not always lead! The role of a follower is not any less noble than that of a leader nor are effective followers second class. It would appear that the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest attitude has erringly seeped into our beliefs about the importance of leaders and has turned followers into nothing more than a by-product of leadership.

In his book The Power of Followership Robert Kelley reminds us that the demarcation between followers and leaders is not as clear as literature makes it to be.[2] In fact, if you examine your daily behaviors you will find that you switch roles between that of a leader and a follower dozens of times each day. If this is true, then we must reestablish equality between leaders and followers. We must lose the hierarchy.

A leader without followers is simply someone taking a walk. Therefore, a leader is defined by the presence of followers. As we abandon hierarchy we give power to the role of followership.

REFRAME 2: Recognize the power of followership

“Followership is not a term of weakness, but the condition

that permits leadership to exist and give it strength”.[3]

Have you ever considered how much power followers actually have? Kelley reminds us that “followers determine not only if someone will be accepted as a leader but also if that leader will be effective”.[4] Chaleff endorses the need for empowered followers when he reminds us that “parity [between leaders and followers is] approached when we recognize that leaders rarely use their power wisely or effectively over long periods unless they are supported by followers who have the stature to help them do so”.[5]

A recent trip to the U.S. Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. reminded me about the power of followership. Countless citizens sacrificed everything to stand up to a Nazi regime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a towering example of a follower who refused to be passive. In fact, Bohnoeffer demonstrates how followers who actively exercise their power, paradoxically become leaders. Stated negatively, how many passive followers contributed to the rise of Nazism?

In high school biology we learned that symbiosis is the process by which two organisms rely on each other in order to survive. Natural symbiosis has no pecking order, priority or hierarchy. It is simply a coexistence that provides equality through shared benefit. This is how we should view leaders and followers. Leaders and followers both possess power and the right to exercise it. There is tremendous power in the role of active followership.

REFRAME 3: Embrace mutual accountability

How often have we heard people express thankfulness that they are not leaders because this means they are not responsible for the result? In order to lose the hierarchy and fully embrace the power of followership, followers must respond by sharing accountability with leaders. I call this active followership.

Mutual accountability shifts the focus from followers and leaders and, instead, refocuses on purpose (Figure 1).[6] Challeff notes that “leaders and followers are both forms of stewardship which are directed to the organizations purpose and stakeholders”.[7] In other words, when we shift our mindset to one of stewardship, many of our misperceptions about leaders and followers are reframed. As both leaders and followers align themselves around organizational purpose, a shared goal catalyzes efforts.[8]

Both followers and leaders are important and unique. As each party mobilizes around a clear purpose, hierarchy falls away, power becomes shared and leaders and followers share accountability.

The Goal – Everything rises and falls on followership…and leadership

“The word right makes no sense without the word left” and so too is leadership and followership.[9]

Allow me to conclude with an illustration that demonstrates the power of active followership. As the Russian dynasty crumbled in the late 1980’s, Lithuania was the first country to declare their independence from the USSR (March 11, 1990). About six months prior to this, a little-known event called The Baltic Way served as a critical catalyst to this bold declaration. In a public display of solidarity and a desire for independence, about 2 million citizens of the countries of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia joined hands on public roadways and formed a continuous human chain that spanned three countries and over 600 km. Approximately 1 in 4 citizens in these three countries joined this human chain that stretched the equivalent of the distance from San Diego to San Francisco. This demonstration by millions of active followers, became a foundation which emboldened Lithuania to declare independence from the Soviet Union six months later.

“Followers at their best…participate with enthusiasm, intelligence, and self-reliance – but without star billing – in the pursuit of organizational goals”.[10]

This is why everything rises and falls on followership as much as it does on leadership.


[1]  Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, p. 15.
[2]  Kelley, R. (1992). The power of followership. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency, p. 28
[3]  Chaleff, p. 19
[4]  Kelley, p. 13
[5]  Chaleff, p. 1
[6]  Chaleff, p. 3
[7]  Chaleff, p. 17
[8]  Chaleff, p. 4
[9]  Kelley, p. 44
[10]  Kelley, p. 27

  • Jimmy Collins

    An interesting article, Paul!

    Defining the difference in the contributions of the leaders and follower is
    difficult. What is missing is the personal management of the egos of the people involved. They cannot be managed externally. It is up to each individual to manage his own ego.

    Until an individual is willing to dismiss the overuse of the word “leader” to
    describe every kind of management, supervisory and coordination role, it is
    nearly impossible to accept the label of “follower.” That is why I only use the word “leader” to describe someone with followers and a unifying purpose to hold them together.

    Executive is more often a better description of the roles usually described as
    “leader.” I was comfortable being described as an executive, simply because I was not a leader, and I knew it.

    That is why many years ago, I stopped pursuing leadership roles and concentrated my focus on followership. It was one of the best life choices that I ever made.

    My total focus was on followership. I did not do it to learn how to lead, to
    prepare to lead or attract followers.

    I practiced followership because it changed the spirit of my co-workers and
    inspired me. Rather than seek authority, I took responsibility. When I dropped
    out of the competition for titles, authority and leadership roles, my co-workers
    no longer viewed me as a competitor, they were happy to cooperate with me.

    Here is how that worked. http://creativefollowership.com/responsibility/

    That spirit of cooperation is what created the environment for my success as an

    Most people have the capacity and capability to become an executive, but few will ever be a leader.

    But, why worry about it. Life can be wonderful as a follower!

    Jimmy Collins

    • Jeff Suderman

      This is a great insight Jimmy, one that I fully agree with. For me, the essence of your comments revolve around the question, “why I lead (or follow”). When we define ‘why’, we get to matters of motive. For many, this is ego-based (for some, ego is rooted in pride, but for many it is stems from insecurity). Thanks for your comments

      • Jimmy Collins

        My pleasure, Jeff!

  • Lynn Hare

    This post got me thinking. I want to bring an attitude of servanthood to the Body of Christ where I serve. I don’t always agree with decisions leadership makes. But Christ is showing me I can enter into agreement by following humbly, setting aside my own agenda. I did that recently as my church set out to study the book of Mark in small groups. I asked God to help me with my attitude. Before I knew it, I enjoyed it as much as everyone else. And we’re growing as disciples beside one another, entering into what God is up to in His “big picture.”

    • Jeff Suderman

      Amen Lynn! I remember a team-building activity where a group of 8 of us had our feet strapped onto two 2X4’s. Our goal was to move to a finish line but to do so, a lot of coordination was involved and it was very difficult. From this, I learned the invaluable lesson of leading from behind (the person strapped onto the back of the 2X4’s had the best view on how to coordinate the efforts of all the team members). I think this metaphor has great application to active followership as well.

      • Lynn Hare

        Jeff, I’ve never seen that 2 x 4 activity before. It sounds hilarious! Watching someone’s back doesn’t sound entirely glamorous. But Ephesians 6:18 says, we’re called to “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,” I guess that’s covering one another’s backs, eh? Perspective is everything.

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    Es cierto hoy podemos estar en la cima , mañana podemos venir en declive y después mucho mas abajo; Lo importante no es llegar si no saber mantenerse vigente en todas las épocas, algo un poco difícil pero no imposible.

  • Followers are what allow leaders to lead. But this should never been seen as who is better or more important than the other. At the end of the day, leaders share vision that followers grab a hold of. This is always done best in the context of a team.

    • Jeff Suderman

      At a leadership conference last weekend, I heard a couple great quotes that relate to what you said:
      – Followers are the gem cutters of leadership, coaxing out its full brilliance. Ira Chaleff
      – It is easier to recognize the quality of leadership in the behavior of their followers than it is in the behavior of the leader. Kevin B. Lowe

  • Wow, a lot to think about here! I too have been bothered by what sometimes seems a one sided emphasis on leadership. One thing that comes to my mind recently is the Euromaidan revolution that took place here in Ukraine just this year. When the president at that time realized that he had no more followers her fled the country.

    • Jeff Suderman

      Thanks for posting! I think it is easy to get trapped into loving the power and the perceived importance that can be derived from leadership!