In the realm of professional development, the spotlight often shines on leadership. Countless resources, courses, and seminars emphasize the qualities and skills necessary to lead effectively. However, followership is an equally critical and frequently overlooked aspect of organizational success. Understanding and mastering the art of followership is crucial for team dynamics and can serve as an unconventional yet highly effective path to leadership. This article delves into the concept of followership, its significance, and how mastering it can pave the way to becoming a remarkable leader.

Defining Followership

Followership refers to the behaviors and actions of individuals in subordinate roles who contribute to achieving organizational goals. Unlike leadership, which is characterized by guiding and influencing others, followership involves supporting and executing the leader's vision. Influential followers are proactive, engaged, and committed to the success of their team and organization.

There are various types of followers, each exhibiting different characteristics:

  • Passive Followers: These individuals rely heavily on leaders for direction and are often disengaged.
  • Conformist Followers: While these followers are active and willing to participate, they may need more critical thinking and follow orders without question.
  • Exemplary Followers: These followers are proactive, independent thinkers who support their leaders while providing constructive feedback and ideas.

Understanding these types allows us to appreciate followers' diverse roles within an organization and the potential for development within these roles.

The Link Between Followership and Leadership

Effective leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin. Good followers possess qualities essential for effective leadership, such as reliability, commitment, and the ability to provide constructive feedback. Leaders who understand the dynamics of followership can foster a collaborative environment where leaders and followers thrive.

History and contemporary examples abound of successful leaders who started as exceptional followers. For instance, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, began his journey at Apple as a senior vice president of worldwide operations. His ability to execute Steve Jobs' vision with precision and dedication significantly influenced his rise to leadership. Similarly, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, demonstrated exemplary followership before ascending to his current role, consistently aligning with the company's goals and providing innovative solutions.

These examples illustrate that mastering followership is not passive compliance but active engagement and contribution, critical attributes of effective leadership.

Skills Developed Through Followership

Mastering followership equips individuals with a suite of valuable skills that are directly transferable to leadership roles. These skills include:

  1. Communication and Active Listening: Effective communication is the cornerstone of followership and leadership. Good followers actively listen to understand their leader's vision and directives. This skill is crucial for leaders who must convey their ideas clearly and understand their team's feedback and concerns.
  2. Team Collaboration and Support: Followers work closely with their peers, fostering a collaborative environment. They support their colleagues and contribute to a cohesive team dynamic. Leaders who have honed this skill can build strong, unified teams that work towards common goals.
  3. Adaptability and Problem-Solving: The ability to adapt to changing circumstances and solve problems is vital for followers who must navigate various challenges to support their leader's objectives. Leaders with this skill can effectively guide their teams through uncertainty and complexity.
  4. Accountability and Integrity: Reliable followers take ownership of their responsibilities and maintain high ethical standards. This accountability and integrity are indispensable for leaders who must earn their teams' and stakeholders' trust and respect.

Case Studies and Real-Life Examples

To illustrate the impact of followership on leadership development, let's explore a few real-life examples:

  1. Tim Cook (Apple): Tim Cook joined Apple 1998 as Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations. He was known for his meticulous execution of Steve Jobs' vision and ability to streamline operations, significantly contributing to Apple's success. Cook's deep understanding of Apple's goals and his ability to support and enhance them exemplify exemplary followership. His dedication and proactive approach eventually led to his appointment as CEO, where he continued to drive the company's growth and innovation.
  2. Satya Nadella (Microsoft): Before becoming CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella was Executive Vice President of Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise group. Nadella's ability to align with Microsoft's vision and innovative cloud computing approach demonstrated his exemplary followership. His leadership has since transformed Microsoft into a leader in cloud services, showcasing how skills developed through followership can translate into visionary leadership.
  3. Ursula Burns (Xerox): Ursula Burns began her career at Xerox as a summer intern and gradually rose. Her willingness to learn, adapt, and support her leaders' strategies exemplified her strong followership. Burns' deep understanding of Xerox's operations and culture and her proactive contributions eventually led her to become the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

These case studies highlight that followership is not about passivity but about active engagement, dedication, and the continuous development of critical skills that lead to effective leadership.

Practical Steps to Master Followership

For HR professionals looking to develop their followership skills, here are some practical steps:

  1. Seek Feedback and Continuously Improve: Actively seek feedback from leaders and peers to understand your strengths and areas for improvement. Use this feedback to refine your skills and enhance your contributions to the team.
  2. Support Your Leader's Vision and Goals: Align yourself with your leader's vision and goals. Understand their objectives and work diligently to support and advance these aims. Demonstrate your commitment through your actions and dedication.
  3. Demonstrate Initiative and Reliability: Identify and address challenges within your scope of influence. Be reliable in executing your responsibilities, ensuring that your contributions consistently meet or exceed expectations.
  4. Build Strong Relationships Within the Team: Foster solid, positive relationships with your colleagues. Collaboration and mutual support are critical to a successful team dynamic. By building trust and rapport, you enhance your team's overall effectiveness.
  5. Embrace Learning and Development Opportunities: Continuously seek opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills. Attend workshops, webinars, and training sessions to enhance your abilities as a follower and a future leader.


Mastering the art of followership is a powerful yet often underappreciated pathway to leadership. Effective followership involves active engagement, critical thinking, and a commitment to supporting organizational goals. By developing communication, collaboration, adaptability, and accountability skills, followers can significantly contribute to their teams and position themselves for future leadership roles.

Adopting followership is not just beneficial but essential in the journey to becoming an exceptional leader. It equips individuals with the foundational skills and experiences necessary to lead with empathy, insight, and effectiveness. HR professionals who understand and cultivate followership within their teams will enhance their performance and prepare for a future where they can lead with distinction and impact.