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The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Power of Followership

Most books discuss leadership in a vacuum as if leaders can accomplish the things they do without help from others. When success is achieved the leader gets all the credit. But great leaders are sometimes created because of those who they lead.  Without good followers, leaders can never achieve success.  Let me explain using a well know fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  If you remember, this story is about two con artists who tell a vain emperor they have the most exquisite fabric that only smart and powerful individuals can see. Actually, there is no fabric at all and the con artists only pretend to see the fabric as they present it to the emperor.  The emperor, not wanting to admit that he cannot see the fabric as it would indicate that he is not smart or powerful, falls for the con and asks for a suit to be made out of the fabric by the con artists.  In conclusion, the emperor parades the town in his new suit until a child yells out “the emperor has no clothes!”

This story makes a great case about leadership and its inability to have an impact if there are no good followers around to speak up and wake leaders to the truth. Out of all the emperor’s servants, friends, and townspeople it was a child who was not afraid to speak; an unapologetic, naïve, but very aware child. In some organizations, the culture becomes so homogenized by egomaniacal leadership that everyone thinks the same.  No one questions why things are done a certain way.  Sometimes a newly hired employee may enter the organization with some great ideas for innovation and change, but over time his or her ideas are overshadowed by the culture and they are brought into the fold.  Metaphorically speaking, employees, like children, who were once curious and honest, become cynical and expressionless.  More leaders need “children” like those surrounding the emperor in order hear the truth.

So why is followership just as important as leadership?  Because great followers make great leaders through their ability to think independently and express themselves. There is research that identifies 4 types of followers based on their ability to express themselves and critically think independently (Kelley, 1988).  These two characteristics are important for your subordinates to possess so that you can lead well.  They also are important to possess if you do not hold any formal authority in an organization, but want to be recognized as possessing leadership qualities.  The four types of followers can be describes as alienated followers, sheep, yes folks, and subordinate leaders.

  1. Sheep: We all recognize them when we see them. They lack independent thinking, and do not say much. They follow the status quo.  Contrary to what most think, acting like sheep is very bad for an organization.  A workforce made up of individuals who are afraid to express themselves and do not think for themselves will cause innovation and creativity to suffer.  Leaders who admonish others for not thinking as he or she does, or discourage risk taking will create a workforce where everyone will leave but the sheep will remain.
  2. Alienated followers: These employees think independently. However, if leaders do not value the feedback and input of their workforce, alienated followers will no longer express their opinions and ideas.  Why should they if the leader is always right?  Sometimes these are the best employees that eventually leave the organization and take their talent somewhere where it is valued.
  3. Yes folk: These followers are not afraid to express themselves, but they only express and regurgitate the ideas of their leader.  They do not think independently. This is fine when leadership is right.  But when leadership is wrong, and is not questioned, then the ramifications over time can be devastating to an organization.  To avoid this, effective leaders should ask followers to think about the pitfalls of ideas presented.  Otherwise, depending on the culture of the organization, bad ideas will always flourish because followers allow them to.
  4. Subordinate leaders: When you are a subordinate leader, the term follower is really misleading because you think independently and are not afraid to share your ideas, even when it goes against the status quo.  It takes real courage to be a subordinate leader because you may have to question the decision of your superiors for the greater good of the organization.  All effective leaders should want subordinate leadership in their organization.  However, ego can prevent leaders from realizing how it benefits their leadership abilities. I have found that most leaders feel threatened when an idea or solution that differs from their own is presented.  If you are a leader, embrace your subordinate leaders because they express themselves freely because they care about the organization. Do not take it personal.  Otherwise, they will leave the organization, and they may be your best employees.  If you are a subordinate leader, here are some tips to “manage up” so that your boss may listen:

a) Express ideas that are contrary to your boss in private. He or she will appreciate your respectfulness as well as your candor.

b) Be an expert in your field. That way you will possess what is known as expert power which can be more influential than legitimate authority or the power to reward or punish others. This influence can be effective in speaking with your boss and your peers.

c) Having expert power gives you the freedom to take your talents elsewhere if your boss simply does not “get it.”

d) Remember, you do not have all the answers. Be willing to listen to alternate perspectives and hear your boss out. Otherwise you become just as egomaniacal as your boss.

Be a leader.  But it is also okay to be a follower… so long as you are the right type.

Dr. Jason R. Lambert is an Assistant Professor of Management at Texas Woman’s University.  His research examines the impact of individual differences on early recruitment, selection, and performance.  His work has been presented at both regional and international conferences such as the Academy of Management and Southern Management Association, and has appeared in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal, and the Oxford Handbook of Diversity and Work. His professional career spans 10 years in managerial roles in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

He can be contacted at jlambertphd@gmail.com or through his website at www.jaylamphd.com.

He also offers small business consultation through a partnership with In The Spirit Network at http://www.inthespirit2.com/jason

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