December 2007

Following the Leader

CIDMIconNewsletter Janet Williams Hepler, Microsoft Corporation

Jim Heskett’s article in the Harvard Business School Newsletter, “How Much of Leadership Is about Control, Delegation, or Theater?” prompted some vigorous blog posts about leadership qualities. One of the most provocative comments was from Ed Hare who posted the question “Why doesn’t anyone write on the subject of ‘Followership’? Maybe aspiring ‘leaders’ would learn more if they understood how those they are charged to lead really saw the role of their ‘Leaders’.”

The idea that leaders and followers influence each other is not new. As a child, you may have played the game “Follow the Leader”; the rules were simple: follow the leader wherever he or she is going. Sometimes, the leader would test followers by taking them through tricky terrain or expecting them to emulate a silly walk. But ultimately, all individuals in the game had their turn at leading. If that didn’t happen, then followers chose not to follow and the game ended.

In the contemporary work world, followers may stay by their leaders for a number of reasons, or they may make it difficult for leaders to lead. But in our professional lives, there are more complex motives for leaders to lead and for followers to follow. The good news is that there’s a body of research about the relationship between leaders and followers and how they influence each other in positive and negative ways. One example is found in chapter four of the book The Psychology of Leadership. David M. Messick explores the relationship between leaders and followers and the benefits they may derive from the relationship. These benefits help to explain the questions “Why do leaders lead?” and “Why do followers follow?” The key benefits are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1_Helper

Vision and Direction

According to Messick, leaders provide the vision for the group that outlines the direction and ultimately the purpose for the team. The vision may be broad or may include guidance for implementing the goals. For example, an information-development manager may paint a broad view for serving and delighting the customer. The vision may include the tools that the group will use to produce the results, particularly if the group is moving from an ad hoc environment to one with greater process maturity; being clear about the next step can help move the group forward towards the vision. For providing followers with vision and direction, leaders benefit from the focus and self-direction of their followers who adopt the vision and goals as their own. This commitment fuels alignment across organizations and makes it possible for groups to progress without leaders having to guide every step.

Protection and Security

Another benefit that leaders offer to followers is protection and security to followers who are within their groups. This benefit can take several forms. Leaders may put their careers on the line to protect followers from a layoff or from political issues as they take risks in delivering on an ambitious vision. Protection may also take the shape of assuring that a team has the right skills to complete a mission even if a key person is not able to finish the task. Grooming successors for themselves and for key positions on the team is one way that leaders protect the team from failure. According to Messick, followers know when they receive protection and they feel a personal obligation to offer gratitude and loyalty in return. The social norm that drives this interaction is called the norm of reciprocity.

Achievement and Effectiveness

Leaders enable followers to achieve something that they could not achieve on their own. By orchestrating complex work and enabling followers to use their strengths, leaders can unleash the power of a team. Followers respond to this opportunity by their commitment and the effort they put towards achieving these goals. This commitment also binds followers together as a team. Followers can feel a sense of accomplishment as their strengths are used to achieve the team goals. Musical groups demonstrate this clearly. A conductor can choose the right piece and have a vision for how to shape that piece; however, without the skill and work of the musicians, the music cannot take shape. Musicians gain expertise in planning challenging new music; being part of an ensemble enables them to play pieces that they cannot play on their own.

Information-development departments bear a strong resemblance to an orchestra, particularly on larger projects or in departments with more mature processes. Teams that produce content that can be reused and localized require a degree of orchestration that goes far beyond what’s required for a single author to create a blog. Leaders that can highlight the achievements for the team help them recognize accomplishments that could not have occurred in isolation.

Inclusion and Belongingness

One thing that distinguishes a team is that members know clearly when they are a part of it; they have a sense of identity. Research shows that group members will go out of their way to assist fellow team members in ways that they don’t for others who are not on the team. The willingness of individuals to prioritize team goals over self-interest contributes to the team effectiveness. Leaders can foster that sense of inclusion; inclusion fills an important social need for followers.

Pride and Self-respect

Finally, leaders can instill a sense of pride and respect in their followers by trusting and empowering them. I recently heard the conductor of a brass ensemble call out the talents of the ensemble members who, as he put it, made him a better musician. He highlighted how he depended on the precise sense of timing that the percussionist brought to the ensemble that kept them on track. Followers in turn support and adhere to group norms. In the case of the musical group, practicing parts, showing up on time, and assisting with setup and teardown of the stage are norms that guide the organization.

While these benefits paint a positive picture of leader-follower relationships, not all relationships between leaders and followers offer the benefits outlined above. There are times when the relationship between the leader and followers takes a turn for the worse and stalls the work of the leader and the team. In her article, “When Followers Become Toxic,” Lynn Offerman outlines ways that leaders can be susceptible to followers’ influence; they are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2_Helper


In a healthy environment, leaders glean important information from followers that help them keep the pulse on their business. One thing leaders must guard against is flattering followers who have their own agenda in mind. Falling prey to flattery is nothing new: Aesop warned against it in the fable “The Fox and the Crow” in which the fox uses flattery to entice the crow to sing . As the crow begins to sing, she drops the cheese that she was holding in her beak. With a few clever words, the fox obtained dinner, and the crow got a piece of advice: do not trust flatterers. Yet flattery clearly has its rewards for followers; compliments and favors win people over, and leaders are more often influenced by those whom they like. Offerman notes, “… a recent study indicated that successful ingratiators gained a 5 percent edge over other employees in performance evaluations.” If leaders listen only to flattery from followers, they may become enamored with their own image and stop looking for issues that they need to understand and act upon to be effective.

Withholding Information

If leaders don’t encourage or seek out bad news, followers stop sharing it. Hans Christian Anderson captured this imbalance in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The Emperor was so captivated with his own image that he succumbed to con artists who sold him clothes made of fabric that was invisible to those who were stupid. The emperors trusted advisors didn’t question this lie because they didn’t want their own intelligence to be questioned. The net result was that the emperor paraded among his subjects without clothes; it took a child to point it out. Of course, the lesson provided a learning moment for the emperor and a humorous tale for readers; leaders today would lose their jobs.
Why don’t followers naturally share bad news? Leaders have the power to quickly squelch the sharing of bad news by how they respond to it. Messengers require courage to bring forth bad news, particularly if the leader is typically hostile towards the bearer of bad news. In addition, withholding bad news allows others to have the impression that a group is healthy and unanimous; pressure from the leader and from peers to present a rosy picture may be hard to resist.

Infatuated with Power

Finally, leaders may find some followers who have a need for power and a strong personal agenda that is more important to them than the group vision and goals. It’s difficult for leaders of large organizations to keep track of everything and everyone. Delegating an important task to a power-hungry follower can set the leader up for peril. Self-serving followers may also push the leader to make uninformed decisions by creating a false sense of urgency. If the follower also succeeds in gleaning support from peers, or other powerful people in the organization, a team can become divided or resistant to the leader. Situations like this may cause leaders to question their own judgment and lose confidence.


So how can leaders guard against self-serving followers? Offerman’s article suggests six ways for leaders to keep a healthy balance in an organization:

  • Emphasize and communicate vision and values. Keeping your focus sharp can prevent you from being distracted by something that falls outside of your vision and goals.
  • Encourage debate. Leaders who encourage healthy debate among their followers may guard against groupthink and uncover information and ideas that they wouldn’t know otherwise.
  • Foster trust and truth tellers. Cultivate relationships with people whom you trust to tell you the news you need to hear, be it good or bad.
  • Set the example. If you set a good example of behavior, you model the code of conduct for your team. It’s also important to clarify the consequences for behavior that doesn’t meet the standard.
  • Trust your instinct. If you feel you are being rushed or manipulated, you’re probably right. Honor those feelings, and carefully choose a course of action.
  • Delegate judiciously, and don’t disappear. Choose the right person for the job, and find some way to monitor results so that you can track and reward progress.


Following the leader is guided by a very basic principle: leaders don’t exist without followers, and followers without a leader aren’t followers. The relationship unites leaders and followers and gives them the potential to realize goals that they could not achieve on their own. The exploration of Leader/Member Exchange provides insight into the relationship between leaders and followers and how they create that future together. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author

Janet Williams Hepler_bw

Janet Williams Hepler
Microsoft Corporation

Janet Williams Hepler has worked in content publishing teams for 15 years; 11 of those years were spent managing teams. She currently works at Microsoft as a Content Architect for Visual Studio Team System and is also pursuing her Masters in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.