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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Thum, Ph.D., CCXP

Digital Transformation Leadership: Making the Case for Followership. (Yes, followership!)

“Followership is not a term of weakness, but the condition that permits leadership to exist and gives it strength.” -Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower

There’s no shortage of advice out there on digital transformation leadership. Digital transformation followership, on the other hand… not so much.

But here’s the thing. Companies and their leaders can’t flourish in today’s business environment without follower support. Leaders need followers to buy in, evangelize, and support the change that comes with digital transformation.

Followers—especially an organization’s employees—will be the reason digital transformation succeeds or fails. And thus, the reason your customers stay or go.

Leadership, please meet followership.

"Followership" is a word that sometimes hits leaders with a deer-in-the-headlights kind of vibe. Maybe because they’ve never heard of followership. Maybe because followership isn’t as sexy of an idea as leadership, so they haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

Simply scan the leadership bookshelf at your local bookstore. No doubt you’ll find at least a dozen books on topics like servant leadership, transformational, agile, adaptive, authentic, and bad leadership, and so on. And mayyyyyyybe one book on followership, like Ira Chaleff’s classic The Courageous Follower. If you’re lucky.

But if we have learned one thing from the “great resignation,” where employees are leaving or changing jobs in droves, it is that followers have more power than ever. When it comes to the changes that come with digital transformation, followers can either back the change, or tear it down.

If we've learned anything from ‘the great resignation,’ it is that followers have more power than ever.

Influencing action toward change takes more than a “because I said so” directive from a leader. Nowadays, followers aren’t simply obedient, silent observers. Leaders and potential leaders need to understand followers. Because followers can also decide to support someone who wants to be a leader, or not.

What is followership?

There are multiple definitions of followership. Those definitions are evolving.

One definition: A group of people who accept and enable the achievement of an organization’s goals.

Another definition: A group of people without obvious sources of power, authority, or influence. The definition can vary from one culture to another.

Scholars like Melissa Carsten, Ira Chaleff, and Barbara Kellerman are among the extraordinary thinkers who are showing the world what followership is, why we should pay attention, and what we still don’t know about the topic.

Here are some nuggets from their work that point to the reasons why followership needs to find some more love in the business sphere:

  • Leaders contribute only around 20% to change, followers pitch in the other 80%.

  • There are more followers than leaders inside of any given organization.

  • Subordinates and followers aren’t necessarily the same thing.

  • Leadership is a relationship. It's a good idea to recognize the parity of the relationship.

  • Sometimes leaders lead, and sometimes leaders follow, depending on customer needs and organizational goals. There's a benefit in recognizing the fluidity.

  • Just like there are “types” of leaders like servant leaders and authentic leaders, there are “types” of followers like courageous followers, active, and passive followers.

  • Companies spend a lot of time and money on training leaders, but the question remains: How much do they spend on developing followers?

Again, why?

It’s been suggested that followers, historically, lacked traits that were interesting to researchers. The world has simply been swept away by romanticized views of leaders, to the detriment of followers.

Unfortunately, that’s presented a blind spot for leaders.

Because followers rarely, if ever, just blindly follow leaders. They can rebel against change. Or they can help you pack the bags, load up the car, and navigate to a better place. But you must understand what they need to get out of the ride.

Two followership 101 resources to download right now.

This free PDF book is co-edited by Dr. Carsten. Full confession: I would consume anything Dr. Carsten shares on followership. She has noted that the field of followership is an open space that has yet to be fully defined or understood. She also created a model for followership development.

This YouTube video includes a lineup of rockstar speakers on followership including Dr. Kellerman. Their messages are straightforward: Society needs to loosen its outdated, overly romanticized grip on the notion of leadership so that lessons on followership can shine through.

Good followers make a leader’s job easier.

Digital transformation is about making foundational changes in how companies operate. It’s about reinvigorating people and leaving the old way of doing things in the rearview mirror. It involves rethinking processes and rules for serving customers and creating smooth experiences for employees.

When employees don’t or won’t come along for the digital transformation ride, leaders usually take the blame. The world doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the followers that didn’t get on board. But the leadership failure puts the link between leaders and followers on full blast.

Good followers are a competitive advantage.

Good followers will innovate and collaborate with you while others will dissent—sometimes loudly. Leaders may not like the dissent, but they still need to understand it. In his book, Ira Chaleff noted that the devastation of the Enron scandal of the early 2000s is an example of leaders who swept follower dissent under the rug.

Good followers are a competitive advantage in the digital transformation arena. But the days of followers blindly following a leader are long gone. If they were ever an actual thing at all.

Join me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Further reading:

Jin, M., McDonald, B., & Park, J. (2016). Followership and job satisfaction in the public sector. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 29(3), 218–237.

Kellerman, B. (2007). What every leader needs to know about followers. Harvard Business Review, 85(12), 84–91.

Kelley, R. E. (1988). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 66(6), 142-148.

Schindler, J. (2014). Followership: What it takes to lead. Business Expert Press.

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