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Effective Followership in the Public Sector: Cultivating Unofficial Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Janet Thompson
January 18, 2019

The topic of leadership has been a predominate focus in professional literature for decades. Scholars have researched and presented distinct models and typologies that center on the premise of leadership as a singularly ascendant ideal in the workplace. As Robert E. Kelley described in Rethinking Followership, “we view the world as a map with leadership in the center and everything else on the periphery.” Kelley’s definition is particularly analogous to the public sector milieu where managerial and executive titles are viewed referentially as markers of career achievement. Conversely, the ideal of followership is regarded as a perpetually secondary stance from which employees may either advance through promotion or languish in perpetuity. The “labels follower and followership are generally perceived as passive and deferential” according to The Strengths and Capacities of Authentic Followership. However, these stances are not finite. The evolution of followership has changed the workplace landscape so that the significance of this role has been emphasized. Relatively, in the public sector, the study and adaptation of effective followership may serve as a professional development focus for non-managerial employees.

Followership – Styles and Stances

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines followership as “the capacity or willingness to follow a leader.” Extant, contemporary writings about the concept and practice of effective followership illustrate it as a potentially dynamic, multi-dimensional role. Comparable to the varied modes of leadership, effective followership may be adapted by public sector professional development administrators as an influential model to strengthen performance and empower non-managerial employees.

Like the distinct leadership types, followership is segmented into varied styles that represent the predominant dispositions of individuals in non-managerial roles:

  • The Passive – Passive followers look to their leaders for direction and vision. They advance the objectives of their leaders through their work, without question. Their internal directive is that they leave the thinking to the boss because they are “doers.”
  • The Alienated – Alienated followers think for themselves but tend toward negativity. When organizational leaders want to move forward with initiatives, these followers perceive multiple reasons why they shouldn’t. The credo of the alienated follower is the adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
  • The Pragmatics – Pragmatic followers observe organizational leaders to gauge their views and objectives. Once they have a clear sense of management’s direction, they “get on board.” Pragmatics don’t believe in “getting excited about every change in leadership direction.” Instead, they cultivate a “wait and see” disposition to minimize their participation in new initiatives.
  • The Effective Followers – Effective followers are critical thinkers. They evaluate their leaders’ decisions and offer constructive feedback if they disagree. Effective followers support the merits of their leaders’ initiatives, and actively engage in advancing them. These individuals are typically viewed as “go-to” people by management and colleagues, according to Rethinking Followership.

Followership – Effective Follower Characteristics and Capacities

Effective Followers have distinctive characteristics that underpin their motivations and behaviors as unofficial leaders in their workplaces.

Typically, effective followers are:

  • Willing to set their egos aside and perform as team players;
  • Self-empowered through their internal locus of control with a willingness to act;
  • Persistent with staying power to see their work efforts bear fruit;
  • Entrepreneurial in approach so that they are willing to take risks to accomplish results – they’ll do what’s necessary to meet goals;
  • Proactive rather than reactive – they are problem fixers rather than problem identifiers;
  • Flexible and adaptable to manage changes in the workplace;
  • Optimistic and positive in their approaches to colleagues and leadership; and,
  • Invested in continuous improvement, so they engage in professional and personal development to achieve skills

Followership – Factors that Promote or Prevent Effective Followership

An essential premise of the Effective Followership disposition is that it can be situational in nature. If or when influencing changes take place in the workplace, effective followers may perform at less than their typical capacities. Conversely, workplace changes may have the effect of motivating other types of followers to adapt effective outlooks. Affective changes may include: policies, procedures, leadership, working conditions, roles and assignments. Additionally, factors that may alternately promote or prevent effective followership may be segmented as: personal, leadership and structural.

Personal Influences include levels of: satisfaction, commitment and perceived appreciation. Leadership factors are: extent and quality of management support, effectiveness and communication. Structural elements include: type of work, quality of work conditions, quality of workplace relationships, reward and recognition.

Followership: Cultivating Effective Followers

Recognizing the significance of effective followership for organizational success is paramount for public sector entities. The nature of the leadership and effective followership relationship is symbiotic i.e., the attributes and actions of one correlate to the effectiveness of the other. To create an employee ethic of effective followership, the formal leadership of public sector organizations may consider focusing on developing workplace cultures that encourage initiative rather than compliance. Additionally, cultivating organizational stakeholders and providing ongoing professional development for employees demonstrates that leadership is willing to actively foster effective followers as unofficial leaders.


Author: Janet Thompson, Ed. D, MPA, is an Education Program Development Specialist in the Center for Learning and Improving Performance (CLIP)of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. She develops and edits professional training curricula and varied publications for delivery to state employees. Janet has over 20 years of combined higher education teaching and administration experience. She is currently an adjunct professor for SUNY Empire State College and Rockland Community College where she teaches undergraduate students in International and Humanities programs, respectively.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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