The Dark Side of Followership

The contemporary emphasis on leadership has been referenced in nearly every recent article that I’ve read on the topic of followership; to be honest, I’m a bit tired of statements along the lines of “why is no one talking about followership?”—clearly, some of us are! (See my followership bibliography & recommended reads, and the excellent Wikipedia page on followership.)

While I appreciate that some writers are indeed trying to call attention to followership, I am afraid that there is one aspect of ‘leadership’ (really, humanity) that is not translating over, and which is potentially leading to an imbalanced perspective on leadership and followership.

The specific aspect I’m worried about is the dark side of followership: the realities and implications of unhealth in the lives of followers.

There are many books about bad leaders and the impact of toxic leadership; what I’m not often seeing is material, written for followers, about the impact of their dysfunctions on the organization and the leader-follower dynamic.

I recently came across this article from the World Economic Forum, The three ‘nightmare’ traits at the heart of bad leadership. It lists leaders being disagreeable, dishonest, and careless as primary contributing factors to negative organizational impact.

That’s not necessarily an illuminating insight: unhealthy people are obviously likely to contribute to unhealthy outcomes.

The article does quote: “Surprisingly, not only leaders’ but also followers’ dark-sides have emerged as hindering factors for organizational functioning.”

Surprisingly? Really? In the two-way street of the leadership-followership relational dynamic, it doesn’t seem to require advanced research to conclude that foibles on either side are going to lead to negative impacts.

So, the statement surely needs to be broadened: if either leaders or followers are disagreeable, dishonest, or careless, there will be negative outcomes.

overcomingI’ve found the book Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures (by McIntosh & Rima) to be a helpful paradigm for considering various gaps in personal awareness and health. But why is it the case that being compulsive, narcissistic, paranoid, codependent, or passive-aggressive should only be explored as destructive in the context of leadership? Maybe (just maybe) because the impact of a leader exhibiting any of these traits could be especially devastating or derailing to an organization’s ability to fulfill its purpose effectively while maintaining cohesiveness among all levels of participants? But certainly, if these failings exist anywhere (within leaders or followers), there is going to be an impact on the productivity and environment of the group.

More so, I would venture to guess that these dysfunctions don’t magically appear if/when someone steps into a leadership role. Perhaps they become more apparent, have a more public outlet or broader impact, but surely at least the roots existed while one was still primarily in a followership role. As such, it seems important that we intentionally engage in identifying and growing through these elements right away, and not wait until we become a leader and then find all the books targeted at leadership failings.

That’s why I explore 8 different followers’ misconceptions (largely revealing some degree of unhealth or skewed perspective; see Chapters 2 & 4 of Embracing Followership), and advocate strongly for self-awareness and personal development (using various tools, such as the enneagram; see Chapters 5 & 11 as well as my Discussion Guide and free downloads). There’s no sense in only examining the display of dark sides in the context of leadership. A pursuit of excellent followership should call us to uncover and correct these traits—whether full-blown or latent—in the context of our current circumstances, whether or not they’ve produced an overt or significant negative impact.

So, I appreciate that a focus on leadership has included, in part, analysis and guidance about the presence and impacts of dark sides. Let’s be certain that, in our call to pay attention to followership, that we acknowledge those dark sides as human universals—not linked to a particular organizational role—and let’s be sure to consider the presence and impact of dysfunction and gaps in self-awareness in the lives and organizational contributions of us followers as well.


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing 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) —

along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.

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