Select any OB textbook from your shelf and read the chapter(s) on leadership. You will quickly notice that the leadership research that is presented in these chapters is essentially leader-centred research. This admittedly is not a new insight. Much of the traditional and some of the so-called contemporary leadership research address leaders, their characteristics, competencies, skills, behaviour, influence and so on. Followers are usually neglected, rendered as passive, and/or depicted as the ones, who need someone to show them direction and provide guidance.
The video below is called “The first follower”. You may argue with some of what the commentator says but the video could serve as a demonstration of how important followers are for leadership.
Essentially, one may be inclined to state that they are the ones, who decide to follow another person and to accept this person to be the leader (at least for some time or in a particular situation). They are, hence, active and some may say the decisive element for our understanding of leadership. Again, this not a particularly new insight. However, many OB textbook writers seem to frequently (and somewhat systematically?) neglect the role of followers. Even the more sophisticated OB textbooks tend to fail addressing concepts such as leadership as an attribution, leadership as a credit given to one person of the group, or leadership as a function of the group, not individuals. Followers are routinely stripped of their needs, interests, motivations, and their longing for contribution, participation and development.
However, what happens to our students’ understanding of leadership, if we continue telling them that the person or the behaviour of the leader constitute the only aspects that matter, that leaders are the real movers and shakers of the world, and that consequently followers are just passive participants in the leadership. Marginalising followers renders them as less significant for our understanding of leadership and, more importantly, for the practical accomplishment of leadership. Leaders, in turn, become heroes, everything that counts, and the stuff that successful leadership is made of. So, it may be unsurprising that many (if not most) of our students want to become leaders (hence, heroes) and not followers. Moreover, assuming that they end up in a leader position, they may regard and treat followers exactly the way, the textbook has told them – human material that waits to become shaped according to the leader’s discretion.