Can There Be Leadership Without Followership?

THERE HAS BEEN A GREAT DEAL OF DISCUSSION and focus on leadership in the fire service lately. It seems as if everyone wants to be a leader of some sort. Most officer development programs emphasize leadership and management skills, and officer candidates are commonly evaluated on their ability to lead others. Clearly, the ability to lead others and manage the daily operations is critical to an effective fire officer.


But what about followership? One thing is for sure in our business: Everyone has a boss. Even the chief answers to someone, be it the mayor, the county administrator, or a board of directors. Every level of the organization reports to someone. There was a time when I struggled to even utter the word “follower,” as if it somehow was taboo in our culture. I guess it’s the take-care-of-business mindset we’re programmed with in the academy that stays with us as we progress through the ranks. Think about it. How much training or education is offered in following others? I think that is because following really isn’t that cool. But, a lack of follower skills is causing us some headaches. Imagine trying to lead with a dance partner who is constantly trying to lead you. It looks more like a wrestling match than a dance. We’re essentially running blind when it comes to a conscious approach to follow the leader.

At first glance, the concept of followership elicits images of bowing before the boss and having to be careful you don’t bump into the boss if he were to make a sudden stop. To the contrary, effective followers are just the opposite. They challenge the boss when necessary and share their opinions, even if they might be viewed as controversial.


Robert E. Kelley, a professor and an author who has studied the concept of followership, defines effective followers as those who possess the following traits:

  • They manage themselves well.
  • They are committed to the organization and to a purpose, principle, or person outside of themselves.
  • They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact.
  • They are courageous, honest, and credible.

This hardly sounds like the “yes man” that comes to mind when you think about classic followers. This list describes individuals who are self-motivated and make the extra effort to carry out the organizational mission. They are those firefighters who are constantly improving and reading everything they can get their hands on, even on their own time. They are the people you can trust to tell you bluntly and honestly what you need to hear when you need to hear it, even when you don’t particularly want to hear it.

Followers can be broken into five basic types: effective followers, yes people, sheep, alienated followers, and survivors.1

Effective followers are self-managed and committed. They are constantly sharpening their skills and the skills of those they supervise. They are courageous-they say what needs to be said when and how it needs to be heard. These are the people you can trust to tell you when you’re messing up, even if you don’t see it coming. This type of follower might tick you off at first for being so honest; but, after you think about it for awhile, you end up thanking him for it.

Yes people are the bobble-headed followers who constantly work to stay on the boss’s good side. They’ll let the boss run straight into rush-hour traffic and pat him on the back the entire way. From the boss’s perspective, these followers are the most dangerous. They won’t tell you what they honestly think. Instead, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. This type of follower will not have your back when things get tough. Yes people offer no real value to the organization; their function is to protect themselves.

Followers who fall into the sheep category will do what you tell them, but that’s all-nothing more, nothing less. Although it’s great that they will do what they are told, they require a great deal of supervision, almost to the point where it can be more trouble than it’s worth. If I, as a manager, have to literally tell you every move to make, then sometimes it is easier to do it myself. Sheep seldom have any true ownership of the organization or its mission. They simply come to work, punch the clock, do as little as possible to get by, and go home. In a nutshell, they really don’t care.

Alienated followers generally get a bad rap. From the leadership perspective, they are the followers who seem to be constantly working against the system. It seems that they kick and scream, fighting progress at every chance. Leaders often wish these followers would simply go away to make things easier. But, there is a lot more to the story.

There are many reasons followers become disgruntled, but one thing is for sure: They still care. To be upset about the direction of the department or the way a leader leads, you have to care about the organization. Often, disgruntled followers are just one click away from being effective followers. It’s just that something happened to upset them along the way. Leaders often try to assume that they know why the followers are disgruntled, but we know how that usually works out.

A common theme among disgruntled followers is that their version of a perfect department is different from the leader’s. The disgruntled follower believes the organization should be something it is not, for whatever reason. Usually, an honest conversation between the leader and the follower can resolve the issues. A follower who cares is of great value to the organization and is hard to replace. In contrast, the sheep, who does minimal work without a lot of controversy, is more of a drain on the organization.

Many of us have played the role of the survivor at one time or another. We float around on the chart between the different types of followers, just trying to make our way through the day. Everyone has “off days,” and it is natural to float among the different types.

Followers who are independent and critical thinkers are valuable to the organization. Hopefully, most followers will fall in the effective follower category rather than in the alienated category. Both are independent-minded, generating their own ideas and thinking for themselves. They challenge reality and ask tough questions. The line between these two categories is very thin. An alienated follower simply has been turned off by some experience and has become disengaged and passive.


It’s very easy for leaders to sometimes wonder what some of their subordinates are thinking. For whatever reason, the employee isn’t following in the way the leader had hoped and must be “managed.” This same situation can appear drastically different from the follower’s perspective. The employee may have come to work that day with the intention of trying to have a good day, doing what he thought was right. Before long, he found himself in the office standing on the infamous carpet.

This leads to what I believe is one of the core truths in human nature. I believe that when people get up in the morning and head out to work, the primary goal is simply to have a good day. Sure, there are tasks to be completed and errands to run, but the overall concept is simply to have a good day. There are exceptions to the rule. There are those who will willfully try to throw a monkey wrench into the system, but they are the exception.

That said, how is it that a follower goes from “Let’s have a good day” to “Uh oh, I’m in trouble now”? How could he go astray if his intention was not to do wrong?

I remember getting an annual evaluation that surprised me. I thought I had done a pretty good job over the course of the year, but it turned out my boss thought differently. I was listening to his reasons for his dissatisfaction with my performance. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish he had just told me that’s what he wanted in the first place!” If I had known his expectations, I, like any other good employee, would have delivered. I was giving the boss what I thought he wanted, only to find out, too late I might add, that he had different expectations.

For leaders, this is a critical point: If your followers aren’t doing what you expect them to do, have you been clear about what you want? By clear, I don’t mean clear to you; I mean clear to them. Vividly describe what “good” looks like, even if it makes you uncomfortable being that forward with your followers. What does an above-average performance look like? If the leader paints a clear picture of what is good, then it’s up to the followers to achieve that performance.


One of the toughest traits associated with followership is loyalty. It is easy to be loyal if you have a great leader. But, how do you find it within yourself to be loyal if you don’t believe in the leader? The answer is simple: The leader really has little to do with it. Sure, your leader can ruin your day and make things miserable, but only for a short time. This job is bigger than any one person; leaders will come and go. If you’ve been on the job for awhile, I’ll bet you can think back on the leaders you have seen come and go-some were pretty good, and others you’d just as soon forget.

For the follower, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be loyal to the leader. Be loyal to your department, your organization, the job, and the citizens. If the leader is mission-oriented and is doing the right thing, that’s a bonus. Over the span of your time in the fire service, you may encounter leaders who want personal loyalty. Usually, these individuals eventually start to believe their own line of baloney. If you give them enough time, they’ll go away. Be loyal to the patch; that’s what really matters. Do a good job because the citizens and your brothers and sisters deserve it. The rest will take care of itself.


My local government merged our fire and EMS departments some years ago. All division heads gathered in the conference room where the new chief was about to give his grand vision for the organization. He walked in nonchalantly, sat down, and laid out his vision. It was simple-to be the best fire and EMS department there is. Each of us had a choice in how we would respond to that command. We could have played the yes-person role, giving it the old, “Yes chief, that’s a great idea.” We wouldn’t have accomplished a darn thing other than loading the boss up with a heap of empty words. You get the point.

We could have played the sheep, waiting for specific direction, which would have completely paralyzed the organization. But then again, as sheep, what would we care? Imagine the chief’s having to micromanage each division! There simply would not be enough hours in the day to get anything done.

As alienated followers, we might have grumbled and complained. There would have been the office drama so common in the workplace. Some may have been onboard with the mission but would have drawn heat from the others for doing too much and making the others look bad.

Luckily in our situation, we had a good supply of effective followers. Was the chief’s vision extreme and seemingly overwhelming? Yes. We thought of all of the great departments in the country and wondered how it would be possible to match them. But, instead of complaining or withdrawing, we kicked around ideas. Have we achieved the chief’s vision today? No, but we’re ahead of schedule.

All of this is to say that each of us has a choice in what kind of follower we will be. No matter who you are, you follow someone. Which category best suits you? If you think you might be a sheep or a yes person, repent now. Become reengaged in your organization’s mission, and look for that spark you had when you first came on the job. If you think you might be alienated-let me rephrase that-if you are alienated, you know it. Consider what caused the rift between you and the organization. Was it a person, a process, or a policy? If it’s a person, talk it out. If it’s a policy or process, work to change it. But, work within the system to get that done.


It’s easy to categorize people, and that is essentially what Kelley’s leadership patterns do. But, be careful. On more than one occasion, I have pegged someone as a sheep only to find that that person thought he was acting as an effective follower. In his mind, he was meeting the mission and doing well. To me, when this occurs, it is a failure of the leadership, not the followers. The leader is responsible for ensuring that performance expectations are clear. Otherwise, leaders are expecting their followers to read minds. So, it is critical to maintain open communication. Without constant and personal communication, it is easy for effective followers to creep into survival mode and then into a disgruntled follower or sheep mode.

The role of the follower is absolutely critical to the success of the organization. Without great followers, leaders would become schizophrenics sitting in their offices talking to themselves. Could it be that great leadership is born out of great followership? Being independent, a critical thinker, self-motivated, and committed to the organization and to a principle outside of yourself sounds like the perfect combination of traits for sound leadership. Could it be that we have put the cart before the horse when it comes to leadership? Should we be focusing also on following effectively, not only on having the entire department trying to lead? All members in the department have a job to do, each with its own perspective of the organization and the mission.

We are leaders and followers at the same time. The true test in this dance is knowing when to do what. Life’s a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.


1. Kelley, Robert E., “In Praise of Followers,” The Leader’s Companion, J. Charles Wren (ed.), Simon & Schuster, 1995, 96-197.

EDDIE BUCHANAN began his fire service career in 1982 and is division chief of operations for Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS. He is director at large for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is the author of Volunteer Training Officer’s Handbook (Fire Engineering, 2003) and serves on the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training.

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