School & District Management Opinion

3 Thoughts for Leaders Developing Strong Followers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 04, 2017 4 min read
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The art of leading districts, schools, and classrooms all have similarities. Good leaders engender the energy of their followers who are then willing to make their strongest contributions to the organization. It is both that simple and that intricately artful. Superintendents, principals, and teachers, in order to bring success to their areas of responsibility, all require the same behavioral attributes.

We write about the value of leadership, about leadership development, about the life of the leader and the significance of leadership and leaders in results. It is true that an organization is only as good as its leaders. It is also only as good as its followers. Yet little focus is placed on the meaningful choice and role of followership. Perhaps that is because there is an assumption that a good leader will automatically gain good followers. That is, in fact, part of their job. But, followership is a choice. Without it we can get compliance but we starve our organizations of the creative and innovative and we deplete capacity rather than build it.

We can create well-structured and functioning organizations with clear lines of communication and delegation. Teachers may offer feedback to principals about how something is working ... or not. Principals may inform their superintendents about how something is being received by their faculty and parents or where there is a need for tweaking an implementation plan...or not. Yet, these are not the same as followership.

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. In his 2013 article in the IVEY Business Journal, he listed these 8 attributes - judgment, work ethic, competence, honesty, courage, discretion, loyalty, ego management - as followership qualities. Others describe followership qualities more metaphorically. An example is Stephen Bruce who wrote about followership HR Management in 2015. He described good followers as having four traits and knowing when and how to apply them. Those traits are being be an enabling valet, a provocative consultant, a situational chameleon, and a trusted advisor. He wisely asserts that developing this type of followers allows one to actually lead through followership. Each of us can probably identify a person we choose to follow. It was someone who inspired us to put ourselves in their hands, to trust their judgment even more than our own and to admire and respect the purpose and passion of the work they did.

In 2008, when the book, The Art of Followership was published, ‘followership’ was considered in its infancy. Chapter 1 author Robert E. Kelley* wrote:

Traditionally, we have viewed the world from a leadership-centric vantage point. We have assumed that all other factors, including followership, are secondary to leadership. When followers have been surveyed, it was to determining their views of the leaders. But what if we turned all this around? What if we put followership center stage and asked all the same questions, but only in reference to the followers instead of the leaders? (p.11)

Developing Adults As Followers

There are two places where our thinking about this takes aim. One is with the adults. Leaders must include followership development in their work. Leaders and followers are in the dynamic relationship that makes organizations work. The attributes and behaviors of a follower are as essential to the organization as those of the leader. The follower is essential in the success of the leader. But following has a negative connotation in our culture. We do not aspire to be the best followers we can be. It infers powerlessness. So, we must begin changing minds. We can do that by:

  • respecting, acknowledging and valuing those who follow well as thoughtful, honest, courageous, ethical, and loyal and focus on developing those attributes in the children and adults you serve.
  • identifying and eliminating faculty and staff language and behaviors that communicate being a follower is a bad or weak thing. It sends the wrong message. Telling children who may have joined into a fracas in the playground not to be a follower begins the diminishing value of a follower.
  • investing in yourself and others to examine how well you are meeting a set of standards for behavior that all have agreed upon. Developing children as leaders and followers requires a systemic decision to organize behaviors and responses, objectives and goals, by everyone.

Developing Children As Followers

The other focus when thinking about developing followers is the children. As important as it is to develop the leaders and followers of today, educators need to focus on the children. As far away as the behavior of the next generation of adults may seem, schools remain the incubator for their development. What part of the development of curriculum, schedules, activities, and most importantly, the interactions between adults and children purposefully focuses on the development of leader and follower attributes?

The seeds already exist in all schools. Teaching about decision-making, speaking up, bullying, bystander behavior, acceptance, respect, and inclusion take place in schools already. It is a matter of coming to the realization that these actions have a larger purpose than in the moment or in a specific situation.

Growing adult leaders and followers is key to the success of the students we serve. Growing as leaders and followers also helps bring awareness to how to best create the environments in which children can learn as they are developing. Both leader and follower are essential roles. No leader succeeds without well-developed followers.


Kelly, R.E. (2008). Chapter 1: Rethinking Followership. The Art of Followership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.