Ninety years have elapsed since Mary Parker Follett (1927) applied the term ‘follower’. The amount of literature based on the notions of follower and followership has increased enormously over the years. In an American leadership journal I found 1105 articles published on followers and followership, and in a European journal 439.
In a newly published article, I have argued that this kind of research is contrary to scientific endeavours because follower and followership as objects of study have never been defined. Research is supposed to solve problems. In this case there are no managers (formal leaders) who have experienced any problems related to followers and followership. Having worked in nine countries in three continents I have never come across any managers who have used the term ‘follower’ in relation to his or her work. Formal leaders never use the term.
Most people will associate the term ‘follower’ with someone who is or marches behind someone else. Followers are thus secondary or inferior to or a subordinate of the person they follow. There is no empirical support for the assumption that subordinates in formal organisations call or perceive themselves as followers. Indeed, employees would likely be astonished, embarrassed or even offended if they were to be addressed as followers.
Despite the growing attention of researchers, definitions of follower and of followership have not emerged. These terms remain neither theoretically nor empirically defined. Follower and followership are still just descriptive terms. These terms can be approached from the perspective of the leader, the follower or the researcher. Scholars use ‘followership’ in a number of ways: as the opposite pole to leadership in a leadership-followership continuum; as a direct or indirect influential activity; or as a role or a group noun for those influenced by a leader. I found six references that proposed a total of 43 different roles. None of these roles was similar to that of any others.
I have contested the very existence of followers in formal private and public organisations. It is timely to ask the following questions: Is the term follower just another word for subordinate? Are some followers while others are subordinates? Are there different kinds of followers? Ultimately, does followership exist?
All knowledge is conceptually mediated and thus conceptually dependent. A concept must reflect something that is found or exists. How can we know that this is the case when studying followership? As Pirsig (1999, p. 206) writes: ‘If you can’t define something you have no formal rational way of knowing that it exists. Neither can you really tell anyone else what it is. There is, in fact, no formal difference between inability to define and stupidity.’
Nothing is gained by calling subordinates followers rather than subordinates. Jung (1983, p. 380) expressed this point effectively: ‘If anyone is inclined to believe that any aspect of the nature of things is changed by such formulations, he is being extremely credulous about words. The real facts do not change whatever names we give them. Only we ourselves are affected.’ Moreover, Jung added that ‘the change of name has removed nothing at all from reality.’ The reality exists and it can neither be dissolved nor altered by giving it new names, by using metaphors, constructions, de-constructions, and sense-making, or by applying different approaches, methods, perspectives, and interpretations (Sayer, 1992). Again, subordinates remain subordinates, however often some scholars insist on calling them followers.
Some scholars have stated that empirical research into followership is still in its infancy. This is indeed correct. The claim that recent studies provide both significant contributions to present theory and direction for implications for practice is not, however. Crossman and Crossman (2011, p. 492) have suggested that, ‘A possible avenue for researchers to pursue is the development of a valid and reliable questionnaire for followership’. In order to do so theoretical and empirical definitions of follower and followership are required, but these definitions remain elusive.
Perhaps the distance of 90 years has obscured how Follett’s own understanding of the term follower. It is worthwhile noting that Follett (1927, p. 235) also wrote that, ‘The best leader has not followers, but men and women working with him’. What we still have today are descriptions of follower and followership. Neither theoretical nor empirical definitions have been presented. Consequently, it is impossible to present empirical arguments to support the claim that follower and followership exist, and that followership enhances leadership research or is beneficial to organisations. When followership is not defined we have no rational way of knowing that it exists. The inability to define the study object is the inability to research it. Some scholars nevertheless find no difficulties in studying followers and followership, while I find none in rejecting them.
- This blog post is based on the author’s paper On ‘followers’ and the inability to define, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 274-284 (2019).
- The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Shwetha Shankar on Unsplash
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Jon Aarum Andersen is researcher/professor at Örebro University School of Business, Sweden. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from Norway and a Ph.D. from Lund University, Sweden. Dr. Andersen has written 13 university-level textbooks and has 40 international research journal publications. See more posts by the author here. E-mail: email@example.com