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Lionizing Lackeys

Every once in a while, somebody comes along with a theory so brilliant, so iconoclastic and yet so blitheringly obvious …

Every once in a while, somebody comes along with a theory so brilliant, so iconoclastic and yet so blitheringly obvious that the rest of us sit around grumbling, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Such a theory is “followership,” a bold concept delineated in the new book Followership: How Followers Create Change and Change Leaders. The brainchild of Barbara Kellerman, who teaches public leadership-though not public followership-at Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the book advances the Byzantinely clever, yet intoxicatingly obvious, argument that without the support of followers, leaders could not accomplish anything whatsoever. The book could just as easily have been called Not Enough Rank-and- File Native Americans, Too Many Chiefs; Ringo and George, Not John and Paul; or Hey, Napoleon: How About a Hand for Pierre, Michel and Claude: How Ordinary French Guys Conquered the World

An all-out assault on this society’s obsession with those who lead, as opposed to those who follow, Followership singles out Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as examples of organizations that have transformed the world through the heroic actions of many, many followers but few actual leaders. In a somewhat less appealing context, but one which is even more effective at driving home her point, Kellerman stresses that, without the German people’s complicity with Hitler, the Nazis would not have been able to destroy Europe overnight. In effect, Kellerman believes that the quiet, under-the-radar trailblazing of followers is what enables leaders to do the actual trailblazing, even though the followers rarely get credit. Now, she hopes, followers will finally get the respect they are long overdue. 

The implications of “followership” in the corporate world are enormous. If followers are anywhere near as important as Kellerman suggests, then nobody at the top of a corporation should take all the blame for a disaster, given that the followers are equally responsible. This means that when Citigroup and Merrill, Lynch recently made changes at the top, a lot of followers should have been deep-sixes as well, since without their disastrous followershipping, the disastrous leadershippery could never have taken effect.

Viewed from another perspective, George Armstrong Custer should not be saddled with exclusive blame for the disaster at the Little Big Horn, because nobody forced his followers to follow him. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “lemmingship,” where followers follow the leaders right over the cliff and then try to act like it was somebody else’s fault. 

One area of followership that has not fully been investigated is followership compensation. While debate about executive compensation rages, no one seems to be paying much attention to how much followers should be paid for following the leader. Because following may be more important than leading, given how many followers a leader needs in order to be successful, perhaps followers should be paid just as much as leaders. Obviously, this could get expensive. 

However the issue of followership compensation plays out, we should all be thrilled to know that such outstanding work is being done at the Kennedy School. This is incendiary theoretical work that rivals the finest achievements of Plato, Locke, Montesquieu, Hegel, Von Clausewitz, perhaps even Dr. Phil. One can only hope that Ms. Kellerman will follow up Followership: How Followers Create Change and Change Leaders with Sitting-on-the-Sidelineship: How Passive Tentative People Empower Leaders to Do Little by Doing Even Less; Buzzmanship: How Hard-Working Drones Help Queen Bees Become Better Queen Bees; and One-Downsmanship: How Self-Effacing Underlings Create Better Leaders by Staying Out of the Line of Fire. All of which would be mere preparation for her masterpiece, Absenteemanship: How Sick Employees Improve Organizations by Staying Home Where They Can’t Annoy Everyone. Order your copy now.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.