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ATD Blog

The Science of the Leader-Follower Relationship

Monday, May 10, 2021

Leadership is contextual. There are more than 60,000 books in print about how to be a good leader. Most of these books focus on leadership efficacy and character. Few consider the science of the relationship between leaders and followers, even though the quality of these individual engagements is essential for a productive work environment. The new frontier of the leader-follower relationship will demand more dialogue about how leaders and followers interact to increase workplace confidence, strengthen teams, and improve performance results.

The science of leadership is becoming more important in the discussion of the leader-follower relationship. Leaders and followers connect in many ways: psychologically, biologically, socially, organizationally, culturally, and environmentally. In other words, multiple scientific disciplines can analyze the nature of this relationship.

The science of effective leadership is fundamental. At the top of the organization, guiding and navigating relationships, is the leader’s brain. For the organization to be headed in the right direction; for it to run well; and for people to come together, cooperate, and synergize, the leader’s brain needs to optimally function. The science aspect of the relationship, in addition to the business aspect, should also be considered. Unhealthy relationships between the leader and follower negatively affect the organization, team, and leader-follower relationship.

Organizations train people in leadership as well as followership roles. Companies are encouraging leaders to be more genuine and authentic. We must not forget there is a leader, a follower, and a third element—the relationship. Leading in the new frontier will require individuals to focus greater attention on the dynamic role of the science of the relationship between the leader and follower.

Science and the leader-follower relationship will be the focus of leadership models as organizations move forward. No one can effectively lead any organization by standing outside or ignoring the dynamic web of relationships through which all work is accomplished. Understanding the science of the relationship will help everyone better understand individual and team dynamics in the workplace and will help followers feel valued, respected, and safe. This understanding also helps leaders interpret the unpredictability of the moment for their organization, which is crucial in today’s rapidly changing world.


Leadership styles of relating to followers are very effective in bonding and helping followers feel valued, respected, and safe. Healthy relationships encourage and inspire productive leader-follower experiences. Research indicates that the function of the leader’s brain is essential to enhanced synergy and collaborative work between leaders-followers. This science of the brain leads to a broader foundation of relationship efficacy and results.

The brain’s most crucial function is to keep us alive. It’s less costly to overestimate danger than it is to underestimate it, so the brain’s threat detection networks are designed to err on the side of caution. As a result, the brain categorizes anything that’s unprecedented or doubtful as inherently aversive and views uncertainty as a source of deep discomfort. A deficient relationship between the leader and follower is a threat to the organization, team, and individual follower.


Leaders need to realize that the command, control, organizational compartmentalization is a thing of the past. To be successful, organizations need leaders who can present themselves as they are, who have confidence and humility, and who are viewed by others as having integrity and being worthy of trust.

A growing number of journals are focused on the science of leadership, post-graduate education, and an annual summit about this topic. In today’s environment, it has become scientifically apparent that for leaders and organizations to maintain effectiveness, they must understand and practice the science of leadership.

Want to learn more? Join the Graduate School May 25-27, 2021, at the ATD Government Workforce virtual conference.

About the Author

Larry D. Frazier is a senior leadership consultant. He received his Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Change from Walden University School of Management and Technology. He is adjunct faculty in the MBA program at the University of Maryland Global Campus, teaching leading organizations and people. He works with the Center for Leadership and Development (CLM), serves as a lead facilitator for Executive Survival Skills and Executive Potential Program where he trains senior leaders from federal and local government agencies.

He is particularly interested in the practice of leadership and performance of teams, and his research has focused primarily on understanding the complex relationship between neuro-leadership, team dynamics, and performance. This includes not only how mindfulness practices can affect team dynamics, but also how team dynamics can affect team design. His research is particularly relevant to self-managing and autonomous teams. Through his personal experience and doctoral research, he has placed significant emphasis on the importance of learning and practicing the art of leadership. He is an Honors Graduate from the Institute for Ethnic Studies and Race Relations.

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