By Barbara Kellerman
Harvard Business School Press, 2008
Barbara Kellerman of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has written a book whose title captured my interest-Followership. Her thesis is simple: The age of the follower has arrived.
Granted, she concedes, this is not the first time followers have wrested power from leaders, citing the French and American Revolutions, the rise of communism, and the suffrage and civil rights movements as evidence of her hypothesis. However, there are two defining backdrops against which this new age of the follower has emerged: first, the post-war, anti-authoritarian culture of the sixties; and second, the information revolution and the impact of the Internet.
The first part of Followership sketches the contours of this zeitgeist and made me want to further understand why and how this particular era of the follower is unique and, consequently, what lessons could be learned about followership and organizational behavior. However, the rest of the book does not delve deeply into such diagnoses. Rather, Kellerman distinguishes her purpose as “more descriptive than prescriptive”; she introduces a typology of followership and devotes the rest of the book to illustrating examples of each type.
Kellerman presents five types of followers in ascending order of engagement: Isolaters, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards. She provides in-depth examples of good and bad followers, from bystanders in Nazi Germany, participant scientists in the Merck pharmaceutical controversy over Vioxx, activist Catholics against child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and diehards in the U.S. military who supported the ill-fated Operation Anaconda.
The strength of Followership is both the breadth of its examples and Kellerman’s descriptions of the events and people highlighted. As her typology is based on levels of engagement, her conclusions are, not surprisingly, that good followers are those who actively support effective and ethical leaders and oppose bad (ineffective and unethical) leaders. On the other hand, bad followers are those who are either inactive or actively support a bad leader. In short, the best followers are those who actually, well, kind of lead.