As the concept of followership gains traction in contemporary thinking, it’s undoubtedly going to face one of the afflictions that plagues discussions of leadership: how do we define what we’re talking about?
It’s readily said that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are books on the subject; the exploration of followership is likely to follow suit.
When I first drafted the manuscript for Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture, I made some specific statements about not attempting to offer a precise definition of the concept. In my experience, those that had never before encountered the term ‘followership’ had an amazing level of clarity and resonance when I first presented it to them, making any sort of concrete definition seem unnecessary.
Of course, my editor wasn’t going to let me get away without pinning down exactly what I was going to spend 240 pages writing about, so I do indeed offer some qualifiers about what I am (and am not) talking about under the heading of followership. I also continued to wrestle with notions of followership as identity, or as an aim (see Followership: Object or Identity?).
Certainly, other authors are making attempts at creating their own definitions, and I recently stumbled across the entry from dictionary.com. It reads:
The second definition represents the notion of followership that we refer to when we talk about social media (see “Followership is…? (not Twitter!)“). In the context of Embracing Followership, it’s the first definition that I want to consider.
From the platform of this dictionary.com definition, I’ll offer one agreement, one question, and one omission.
Agreement > I appreciate the inclusion of the word “ability” in this definition of followership. Following is not merely a label, nor is it some genetic predisposition to subservience.
Following with excellence is a skill, it’s an activity. It requires engagement and participation. You can be a poor follower, but can get better. You may have some talent or bent toward following well, but that still needs to be activated and developed. These are the works of self-awareness and personal development, which I believe are key components to embracing excellent followership.
Question > This notion of ability is then followed up with: “or willingness.” Is it truly an either/or setup? Is willingness sufficient to be engaged in followership? Perhaps at least as a starting point? Can ability/participation/engagement stand without some degree of willingness?
Some people are perhaps followers by obligation or compulsion or circumstance and not by choice (children in relationship to their parents?), but in the context of embracing excellent followership, it seems to me that ability should be conjoined with an attitude that fosters the activation of our skills. A sense of ownership, a true degree of association, being engaged in a network of relationships with one’s peers, superiors, and subordinates…these are the internal postures that facilitate the outworking of one’s talents and skills in contributing with excellence.
Omission > The definition concludes with a statement of following “a leader.” Do we only follow people (leaders, bosses, managers, supervisors, chairpersons, …)? What about ideals? Or values? Or processes?
True enough, we may align ourselves with and dedicate ourselves to these abstract concepts, but for me, I think the omission of these things from the definition is fitting.
Ultimately, followership is a relationship, one side of a dynamic interaction with other members of a group or organization. It is in the context of relationship that one’s values, calling, goals, and burdens can be shared and acted upon with a greater degree of credibility (consider the followership contribution of ‘Giving Credence to an Endeavor‘) and effectiveness when done in conjunction with others who share a similar sense of passion and ownership. It’s within that group that one’s followership can be both employed and honed, as you remain open to being influenced (and influencing others) while in pursuit of a shared aim—something that an impersonal ideal can never bequeath to you.
So, did dictionary.com give us the last word on what we mean when we refer to ‘followership’? Likely not, but the most gains are to be made, not from being handed an unassailable and exhaustive definition, but rather in the wrestling, in the consideration, application, and pursuit of the notion of followership in our own lives, contributions, and associations.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017).