As a colleague and I tirelessly point out, followers have always been important, and in the 21st century they are more important than ever before. Ira Chaleff (author of the widely read book, The Courageous Follower) and I have found that to study leadership without studying followership is impossible. And that to be a good leader without having good followers is equally impossible. (Of course, the converse is also true. Bad leaders depend absolutely on bad followers.)
While we have made some progress demonstrating to others the significance of this finding – a few decades ago the word “followership” was not even in the lexicon – progress has been painfully slow. We have got to the point where Wikipedia cites followership as an “emerging area within leadership that helps explain outcomes.” But by and large people remain obsessed with leaders and leadership to the exclusion of followers and followership. Even the International Leadership Association, a professional organization with which Chaleff and I have been associated for years, generally treats followership as an insignificant stepchild, to be marginalized or even ignored.
Setting aside the countless ways in which follower power impacts the public sector – #MeToo being just one recent screamingly obvious example – its impact on the private and nonprofit sectors is equally great. A single case in point: subordinates rating their superiors.
When I first walked into a classroom I was expected ultimately to assess the performance of my students. The idea that they ultimately would assess me was inconceivable. Yet now websites like ratemyprofessors.com are not only ubiquitous, they are powerful. Student evaluations of teachers frequently play a critical role in determining teachers’ professional trajectories.
Glassdoor.com is similar. The idea is for information to be openly shared with anyone and everyone, at any level, thereby enabling power to be more equally distributed. Among Glassdoor’s features is information on salaries, reviews of office environments, ratings of companies, and assessments of CEOs based on how many people approve of the company’s leadership. According to a recent article in The New Yorker, Glassdoor’s website now posts thirty-three million reviews of more than seven-hundred thousand companies in almost two hundred countries.
If this isn’t a consequential change I don’t know what is. If this isn’t evidence of follower power I don’t know what is. If this isn’t follower power at the expense of leader power I don’t know what is.