Food for Thought – Employee Empowerment and Engagement and the Notion of Followship


The first organizational change assignment I undertook while working in the UK was to completely revolutionize the central accounting system for a major retailer with approximately 800 stores nationwide.

The cultural legacy of this department, which utilized the expertise of a team of 30 individuals, was one of simply processing the abundant volume of data received on a daily basis.   My focus was not only enhancing the processing processes.  I also saw the potential for the department to transform data into timely management information, which would assist in not only monitoring current financial results but using it as a tool to direct immediate operational efforts to achieve organizational goals.

Another part of the imbued culture was one of scarcity, victimhood, retribution as well as mistrust for anyone seen as ‘management’.

One of the first things I realized was that members of the team had very different ideas about the roles I, and they had to play in this change initiative.

For the first month or so, all I seemed to hear was the mantra: “You’re managing this change, so tell me what to do.”

When I heard this, I’d put my hands together with fingers intertwined and say, “We’re in this together, I can’t do it by myself.  To be successful this change needs all our expertise and knowhow.”

Their usual response to this was raised eyebrows and the refrain, “What planet are you from?”

“Look, let’s try it this way for a few months”, I’d retort, “and if it doesn’t work you can tell me you told me so.”

Basically I was asking them to be courageous enough to trust me and to follow my lead, and sometimes take the lead with respect to what we wanted to achieve as a team.

The Notion of Followship

Initially the words ‘courageous’ and ‘follower’ might seem to represent an oxymoron.  Some would also argue that being a follower isn’t valued or valuable.  In western culture we’re taught, from an early age that being a follower isn’t going to get us anywhere.  We all need to develop our leadership skills to be effective within our organizational roles… right.

However, according to Yun et al (2006), leaders in the 21st century are no longer able to “harness the expertise required to accomplish the work and direct their followers”, so therefore they must learn to share the leadership and decision-making process with individuals they may view as their subordinates.  To even begin to entertain this notion it may be prudent to firstly reframe our understanding of what it means to be a ‘follower’.

Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now in its 3rd edition, suggests there are 3 components to being an effective follower.

  1. Followers don’t serve the leader.  Rather both leader and follower serve the common mission/goals of the organization.  From this perspective the focus of the relationship is less about any inherent power differential and more about making organizational goals a reality.
  2. There are 5 characteristics of an effective follower; they have the courage to: (1) assume responsibility, (2)  support the leader (3) challenge unproductive behaviours or policies of the leadership (4) fully participate in the ambiguity of any all transformation and change and (5) take a moral stand.
  3. Being a ‘follower’ isn’t a personality type.  It’s a role, just like the leadership role, that everyone in the organization must take depending on the needs of the organization.  According to Chaleff “playing both roles with commitment, courage and integrity is needed to produce a benign and successful use of power.”

The Issue of Trust

According to Bjugstad et al (2006), the foundation of a productive follower-leader relationship is mutual trust.

Within the organizational change initiatives I’ve been involved in, an air of mutual trust must occur before individuals feel empowered to be fully engaged in the process.

And trust it seems isn’t only imperative during change initiatives but also in the day-to-day thriving of an organization.  Bjugstad et al quote a study where 7,500 individuals were surveyed over a three year period.  The study found organizations with employees who reported high levels of leadership trust had a 108% return to shareholders as opposed to only a 66% return in organizations where leadership trust was low.

So What

This is all well and good.  But how do we help create a healthier, more effective organization where empowered engagement is created, in part, by using the follower-leader operational model?

Well, the first place for me to look is at my own relationship with the notion of followship – letting go and letting others, no matter what their formal organizational status (whose particular expertise is more suited to a specific organizational need) take a leading role when necessary.

Not always easy, but incredibly empowering for both parties.


Bjugstad, K., Thach, E.C., Thompson, K.J., Morris, A., (2006), A Fresh Look at Followership: A Model for Matching Followership and Leadership Styles, Institute of Behavioral and Applied Management  accessed February 9, 2015

Chaleff, I., What Are the Three Concepts from the Courageous Follower,

Read, J.B. (2014), Followship at the FDIC: A Case Study, Journal of Leadership Education,  accessed February 9, 2015

Yun, S., Cox, J., and Sims, H.P., (2006), The Forgotten Follower: A Contingency Model for Leadership & Follower Self-Leadership, Journal of Managerial Psychology: Self-Leadership, Volume 21 (4)

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