The Exceptional Strength of Followership

Ducks in a Row

This month marks a remarkable time in all of our lives. It doesn’t matter where you live, how you were raised, or which side of any current news-story you are on, these are remarkable times!

It seems that we have opened this decade with a torrent of “worst-that-could-happen” news.  In fact, the USA political, social, and economic issues seem to pale in comparison to the bigger, global picture.

Major Recent Happenings

Just take a look at the global events that have recently unfolded to get perspective:

  • Multiple courageous uprisings from strong dictatorships in an effort to free civilians of oppression and injustice
  • Continued force and oppression from other strong dictatorships to bury the uprisings
  • Multiple natural disasters creating several “worst-that-could-happen” moments. Then only to be followed by more “worst-that-could-happen” fallout from those disasters

Right now, the heartbreaking reality is, in fact, truly heartbreaking in its reality.

The Best in Humanity

Still, and amidst it all, we are bearing witness to some of the strongest natural characteristics in human beings.  Some of it is related to nature—all animals display some level of resilience, adaptability, courage, and forward thinking.

After all, that is Darwinism at its best, isn’t it?

Sure, but you cannot deny that there is something very human coming through in all the recent calamity: a fervent release of hope, community, leadership, and most importantly followership.

On Leading & Following

This is by far one of the most exceptional times for leaders. It is a time to easily measure the power of a leader on a global stage. Just turn on the news and gauge the effectiveness of any leader by seeing their acts of leadership in comparison to the acts of the followership.

In a remarkable way, these acts of  “New Followership” actually define leadership.

New Followership

“New Followership” this isn’t a new phrase.  “New Followership” has been around for a while, though it’s just starting to take shape in a way that the every-day person can appreciate (me included).  In fact, I had completely forgotten about the mid-90’s and early 2000’s focus on this until recently when I saw a former colleague who asked this question,

Christa, in your opinion and with your experience, it seems like the world just needs new leadership, isn’t that true?

Without even thinking, I said, “No.”

It was in one of my not-often-used tones when I feel so strongly against something there simply isn’t a softer way to respond.  In fact, I am surprised at how quickly I turned down this notion that LEADERSHIP could be a lynchpin against the current heartbreaking realities around the world.

With inner dialog fully engaged, I mentally asked myself: Christa, where are you going with this?

I gave myself a few moments to collect my thoughts, and I went with this explanation:

What the world needs the most now is New Followership.”

Reverse Perspective

You see, “followership” is the single most powerful and critical elements of leadership.

I know that sounds very Yogi Berra of me, but many people still don’t realize how important followership is.  In fact, if you ask anyone about this, they will likely view followership as a form of submission, underestimated because it (by definition) pertains to those who follow someone.

However, it’s easy to at least start seeing followership for what it is:

A term that describes how a mass of people can impact decisions about leadership and direction.

For me, “New Followership” takes it a step further.  It also describes the sense that followers can become the real leader:

  • When the sum of the parts become bigger than the single person
  • When a group provides the very leadership that a singular person cannot deliver
  • When the collective followership becomes the de facto leader, even if for a short transitional time
  • When amassed toward a common, strong, and compelling vision fueled by hope and taken on because of despair, the strength of many can overthrow the persona of one.

This is what we are seeing today in the corners of massive governmental, societal, and social change.

Today’s Example

Even in Japan, we are seeing that the strength of the leaders and the confidence in their abilities is largely demonstrated through their followership.  Many would say that Japan’s sense of followership has more societal weight than leadership—we see that now, don’t we?

No looting, no chaos, no requirement from the leaders to enforce community standards and respectful behavior in the face of desperation…

Now THAT is “New Followership!”

What seems more powerful right now in times of despair?  Leadership or Followership?  How does this relate to previous revolutions, changes, coups, and natural disasters?  Should leaders use today’s news as examples to learn and live more strongly aligned to the importance of Followership?

Christa (Centola) Dhimo, President & Founder, via Best Practices
She helps clients by aligning human capital performance with business results


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  1. Rod Brazier on March 28, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Interesting question Christa.

    I absolutely agree that (true) leadership is determined by followership, if by leadership we mean behaviour that fosters willing support from and action by others.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that we often confuse leadership “behaviour” with leadership “position.” For example, we generally refer to heads of governments and organizations as “leaders,” when in fact their behaviour may be anything but “leaderful.” In the case of Japan, there seems to have been criticism of what those in “positions” of leadership have or have not done during the current crisis.

    Fortunately, crises often cause true leadership to emerge: average people stepping forward in the moment to do what needs to be done for the greater good — and bringing others along with them.

    At least this is what I consider leadership. It is largely situational — what constitutes leadership (that is, garners followership) in one circumstance may not in another.

    So, I guess I’m saying that in situations where large numbers of people behave in ways that advance a cause or respond to a crisis, I believe what we are witnessing is a leader-full system, rather than a new type of followership. These people are not waiting to be led. Rather, they are demonstrating what true leadership has always been: responding to what the system and the circumstance is calling for at the moment.

    • Christa (Centola) Dhimo on March 28, 2011 at 8:47 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Rod, I appreciate your readership on this topic. Many would cite the differences in culture often define leadership and followership. Many eastern cultures have generally pulled together in a dignified, patient, and respectful way, viewing leadership as the point for focus, rather than the point for everything BUT focus.

      Many cultures have indeed confused leadership behavior (or “leaderly” behavior) with the actual position. We see this particularly the western cultures. A prime example is how people follow celebrities, as in: one celebrity believes in something, soon their fans believe in it, too. To your point, in most cases, I suspect that this example is nothing more than “position.”

      These days are indeed trying times, and I try to focus my posts here on relevant, timely, and critical aspects of current events as they relate to Leadership. I also tend to be edgy, though in this case my heart was so heavy with current events that my usual sarcasm and cheeky comments were naturally kept at bay.

      Once again, I appreciate your review and your comment. Thank you. ~Christa

  2. LaRae Quy on March 28, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I like your theme! There’s not a lot written on how to be a good follower but that, in itself, is a type of leadership. All the best!

    • Christa (Centola) Dhimo on March 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm

      Thank you for your comment, LaRae- very true !! ~Christa

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  4. Mike Henry Sr. on March 29, 2011 at 10:31 am


    Great observations and a wonderful post. I avoid the word “follower” for the reasons you mention above. A “follower” is someone who willingly takes a role of collaborator. Our world needs full partners, rather than passive followers. We need leaders in every role of any project, people who choose to do the right things to move the group toward the goal. We need many more leaders than we have positions of leadership. We always will.

    Thanks again for the wonderful post.


    • Christa (Centola) Dhimo on March 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      Thank you, Mike. We always will indeed. Appreciate your read, appreciate your continued thinking on this topic…

      My best, ~Christa

  5. Gurprriet Siingh on March 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

    My own post on the same subject seems so tame by comparison… And I love what you say about the group providing leadership that a single leader cannot.

    • Christa (Centola) Dhimo on March 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm

      Thank you for your kind words… I have been told that my blogs are fairly “edgy” in nature (please check out previous posts if you have the time), so I think you’re in good company if you post a “tamer” version of this topic. It’s just good to know the number of people who are interested in this topic and produce vital, critical thinking about it. The right kind of followership is THE key to our future, especially when followership is what makes social media so powerful and connect-able.

      Thank you again for your note… ~Christa

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  7. Curtis Marshall on April 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    To add a little to this discussion, I’d like to ask a few questions:

    Is followership with the motive to lead actually followership at all? Or is it simply a smoke screen enroute to leadership?

    Are they different disciplines altogether? Or is followership a subset of true leadership?

    • Christa (Centola) Dhimo on April 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Hello, thank you for your comment. I chuckled at the philosophical approach– almost a chicken/egg likeness.

      I don’t think followership ever has the motive to lead, though I find your question intriguing. I don’t think followership is a smoke screen either. In truth, followership abounds– it is the only complement to leadership. A leader. Many followers.

      I think I tried to write about what you said when you wrote: “Or is followership a subset of true leadership?” While I don’t think it’s a conscious subset of “true” leadership, nor do I believe followership could replace “true” leadership (we could all probably have a great discussion about what “true leadership” means), when one leader fails so remarkably, then often the followers band together to create a collective leadership.

      As an old adage claims, everyone needs a Captain. The state of followership being the leader, while certainly necessary and considerably noteworthy in certain current situations, cannot be sustained in the long term. Even within the collective followership, there are those who pulse upward with a vision, a voice, a view of alignment… strength, courage, perhaps tyranny, but from the masses come the few, and from the few comes the one when it comes to Leadership. It is the natural way of living beings, we see it all over.

      From there I say that leadership and followership are two different disciplines. They complement each other, requiring assertion at different times and in different ways. Effective leadership is built on specific capabilities, where followership has different needs and capabilities. I wouldn’t claim that either is more important, but the fit of the two is what makes the world go ’round.

      I’ll stop there for now– appreciate your post and I look forward to more discussions on this…


      • Curtis Marshall on April 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

        Thanks for your thorough response Christa. I think we have a similar philosophy on how the two disciplines should work together.

        I think that the “new followership” concept is important, but I think that “new leadership” is required as well. The days of the larger-than-life leader are quickly coming to a close and new leadership philosophies and applications will soon be necessary.

        Borrowing from Steven Johnson’s concept, what is the “adjacent possible” in the realm of leadership?

  8. Christa (Centola) Dhimo on April 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    “The days of the larger-than-life leader are quickly coming to a close…” I was saying the SAME last weekend, once again reflecting on the thousands of successful leaders outside of the USA that so many in this country never hear of, usually because non-USA leaders take a less pronounced and more profound role in their leaderly lives.

    Now, I’m certainly not knocking USA leaders, I am a patriot after all. In my travels, though, I’ve always marveled at how “older” 1st world cultures often seem wiser and calmer, probably for the same reason why many “older” people also seem wiser and calmer. 🙂

    I’m so pleased to see that this post generated some wonderful discussion, mindshare, and consideration. Thank you again Curtis.

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