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While theory and research on leaders and leadership abound, followers, unfollow(ers) and followership theory have been given short shrift. It is accepted wisdom that there is no leadership without followers, yet followers are very often left out of the leadership research equation. Fortunately this problem is being addressed in recent research, with more attention being paid to the role of unfollow in the leadership process.

The purpose of this article is to provide a systematic review of the followership literature, and from this review, introduce a broad theory of followership into leadership research. Based on our review, we identify two theoretical frameworks for the study of followership, one from a role-based approach (“reversing the lens”) and one from a constructionist approach (“the leadership process”). These frameworks are used to outline directions for future research. We conclude with a discussion of conceptual and methodological issues in the study of followership theory.


We have long known that followers and followership are essential to leadership. However, despite the abundance of investigations into leadership in organizational studies (Yukl, 2012), until recently little attention has been paid to followership in leadership research (Baker, 2007, Bligh, 2011, Carsten et al., 2010, Kelley, 2008, Sy, 2010). When unfollow have been considered, they have been considered as recipients or moderators of the leader’s influence (i.e., leader-centric views, Bass, 2008) or as “constructors” of leaders and leadership (i.e., follower-centric views, Meindl, 1990, Meindl et al., 1985). The study of unfollow as key components of the leadership process through their enactment of followership has been largely missed in the leadership literature.

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We suggest that this oversight is due in large part to confusion and misunderstanding about what followership constructs are and how they relate to leadership. This confusion happens because we have not understood leadership as a process that is co-created in social and relational interactions between people (Fairhurst & Uhl-Bien, 2012). In this process, leadership can only occur if there is followership—without followers and following behaviors there is no leadership. This means that following behaviors are a crucial component of the leadership process.

Following behaviors represent a willingness to defer to another in some way. DeRue and Ashford (2010) describe this as granting a leader identity to another and claiming a follower identity for oneself. Uhl-Bien and Pillai (2007) refer to it as some form of deference to a leader: “if leadership involves actively influencing others, then followership involves allowing oneself to be influenced” (p. 196). Shamir (2007) argues that following is so important to leadership that it negates the construct of shared leadership altogether: “leadership exists only when an individual (sometimes a pair or a small group) exerts disproportionate non-coercive influence on others” (p. xviii).

The significance of following for leadership means that our understanding of leadership is incomplete without an understanding of followership. For research in followership to advance, however, we need to identify followership constructs and place them in the context of followership theory.

We address this by identifying followership theory as the study of the nature and impact of followers and following in the leadership process. It investigates followership from the perspective of a) formal hierarchical roles (e.g., followers as “subordinates”) and b) followership in the context of the leadership process (e.g., following as a behavior that helps co-construct leadership). The former focuses on studying followership behaviors from a subordinate position. The latter focuses on studying following behaviors as they combine with leading behaviors to co-construct leadership and its outcomes.

We begin with a systematic review of the leadership literature from the standpoint of followers and followership. An overview of this review is presented in Table 1. In this table the headings represent views of followers and followership from a historical standpoint. The arrow figures beneath the headings show the treatment of followers according to each view. The rows show the leadership theories/approaches and which view they represent (as indicated by a check mark under the heading). Leader-centric, follower-centric, and relational views all discuss followers but not necessarily followership. Two newly emerging followership views are represented in the right-hand columns. These views represent a role-based and a constructionist approach. Role-based approaches see followership in formal hierarchical roles (e.g., subordinate).

They “reverse the lens” (Shamir, 2007) to see followers as causal agents and leaders (i.e., managers) as recipients or moderators of followership outcomes. Constructionist approaches see leadership as constructed in relational interactions among people that produce leadership and outcomes (DeRue and Ashford, 2010, Uhl-Bien and Ospina, 2012). They consider followers to be active participants with leaders in co-constructing leadership, followership, and outcomes.

Following the review we identify a broad theory of followership. We offer conceptual definitions of followership and its constructs, define theoretical boundaries for the study of followership, and outline two general causal models and directions for future research. We conclude with a discussion of conceptual and methodological issues that should be considered as followership research moves forward.

Section snippets

Leader-centric and unfollow

The vast majority of leadership research has focused on leaders. This leader-centric approach (Hollander, 1993, Meindl et al., 1985) has contributed to a view of leaders as power-wielding actors who affect group and organizational outcomes (Yukl & Van Fleet, 1992). Stereotypes of leaders, as suggested by many definitions of “leadership,” conceive of leaders as the motivating entity that moves or directs unfollow to action, ultimately ending in the achievement of goals (Bass, 1985). Stereotypes

An emerging field of followership research

Although our review shows that most research on leadership recognizes the follower in some way, the focus on followership as a research area in its own right has not occurred until very recently (Carsten et al., 2010, Collinson, 2006, Hoption et al., 2012, Sy, 2010). Followership approaches are distinct from prior approaches in that they privilege the role of the unfollow in the leadership process. They identify followership as a topic equally worthy of study to leadership (Uhl-Bien & Pillai).

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A formal theory of followership

Despite the obvious need to better understand the role and impact of followers and following in the co-creation of leadership, we still know little about these issues. For followership research to advance, one of the biggest needs is to clearly define and identify theoretical constructs for the study of followership. Therefore, in this section we draw from our review to introduce a formal theory of followership. In our discussion we follow established guidelines for developing theory.

A leader-unfollow is simply where “at any one time, leaders assume followers’ roles and followers assume leadership roles.” Pitron says that the leader-follower implies a system of “two or more persons working together.” This is certainly in conflict with the contemporary leadership approach which appears to have historically relied upon a top-down or even the great man model of leadership.

These models approach leadership as a “do as I say” and typically benefit only the leader. Bennis, as quoted by Gilbert and Matviuk said, “the academic circle of society still tends to focus on leadership as positions contained by one person within the organization [yet] some researchers and scholars began to question if traditional top-down leadership theory is still relevant.”

Gilbert and Matviuk state that within a leader follower relationship “followership escapes the box of simple subordination and obedience of organizational tasks and opens up opportunities for innovative followership that generates and enhances growth within their leader.” Such a reciprocal relationship would not only benefit the leader, but also the organization and the subordinates within. Higher job satisfaction and greater efficiency have been observed as such benefits.