ATD Blog

Followership and Leadership: An Interdependent Relationship

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The modern workplace has become very sophisticated, and the need for agility and participation in decision making are now more important than ever. The participation in decision making means that leaders and followers are sharing in responsibilities.

Gone are the days when followers were just reactive, submissive, or passive to the leaders, explains Ira Chaleff in his book The Courageous Follower. Modern researchers have been busy contributing to the body of knowledge around followership, and as more people engage in the literature, a clearer picture of effective followership is emerging.

Just as we have effective and ineffective approaches to leadership, we have effective and ineffective approaches to followership. And just that concept alone indicates that followership is not reactive or simply assigned, rather it is a position selected by those individuals who pledge their followership through a project, job role, group goal, or other shared desire for an outcome.

The language used for effective followership is “exemplary followership,” coined by Dr. Robert Kelley in the early 1990s. Kelley successfully developed an assessment to identify the varying types of followers and brought high visibility to the importance of followership in the leader/follower relationship, which he details in his book The Power of Followership. Exemplary followers, according to Dr. Kelley, are highly engaged and thinking independently. They share in the same goal as the leader and are committed to succeeding in reaching that goal; thus a shared sense of responsibility.

I tend to think of leadership and followership’s interdependence on each other for success as that of a canoer and their oar. A canoer without an oar is left at the mercy of the current. It moves in whatever direction the water takes it, colliding with any obstacle in its way. With an oar, the canoer can navigate through the waters either speeding up, slowing down, steering around obstacles, or even parking along the shore. Without the canoer, the oar also sits in the canoe left at the mercy of the current.


The oar is like a leader—whether that leader be over a department, or an entire organization in its community. As the organization moves along different types of currents both internal and external, the organization provides the guidance and tools to navigate the currents effectively.

For example, in the healthcare arena, the healthcare systems act as the oar in giving direction and a mechanism for navigating health needs for those patients in need. The patients share a common goal for well-being with healthcare systems, and are therefore interdependent and offer their followership to the healthcare system. This even works on a micro level in which leaders help teams navigate through changing currents in the workplace to reach goals and achieve success.


Thinking of this in a leader/follower perspective, the leader being the oar is the resource to help the team succeed. The followers are the canoers who leverage the strength of the oar to propel the team along the currents. Without the canoer, the paddle sits in the boat at the mercy of the current. Without the paddle, the canoers are just as helpless to the currents. This sense of interdependency is what makes navigating the journey successful to reaching our goals.

Interested in learning more? Join me May 22, 2016, at the ATD2016 International Conference & Exposition for my session: Followership: The Three Pillar Approach.

About the Author

Brian Rook is an organizational development specialist at Parkview Health System. He is committed to the long-term development of human capital and organizational growth. Brian’s experience stretches across HR strategy, HR analytics and dashboard building, curriculum design, and organizational development. His recent work has been designing and launching a curriculum based solely on a Followership model. Brian is an active researcher with scholarly publications, and he serves in his community and as an instructor at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne. 

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