Followers – the Spectrum, from Whistleblower to Enabler

I became as interested in followers as in leaders in the early aughts, when I wrote two books, one titled Bad Leadership, the other Followership. The path taken continued to another book, four years later, in 2012, The End of Leadership. Notwithstanding my other writings in between, my most recent publication, another book, this one titled, The Enablers, sustains what is by now a running theme: That followers have always been more important than the leadership industry has given them credit for; and that for various reasons – above all changing cultures and technologies – they are more important now than they have ever been before.

Anyone familiar with my work knows this is what I think. They would equally know that I define followers not by what they do, but by how they are ranked. By where they fit into whatever the relevant hierarchy – social, political, economic, organizational, educational, cultural, religious, military, you get the point. In other words, followers do not necessarily follow. Sometimes they do, mostly they do; but sometimes they do not.  Followers do though, by definition, at least mine, rank low on the hierarchy that particularly pertains or, at least, they rank lower on this hierarchy than those in formal leadership roles.

This is not to say that all leaders are formal leaders, that they are clearly identified as such. Some leaders are informal leaders, defined by what they do, not by their position or status, or role or credential. Informal leaders need only to stand out to be identified as such, so it is apparent who is leading and who is following. In fact, all a person needs to be a leader, either formal or informal, is a single follower.

Still, most of the time, in common parlance, the leader is someone of relatively or even very high rank, which is why labeling a follower someone who is of lower rank is not only logical but economical. The point is that semantics matter. Our failure to agree – if only for a particular purpose or a limited time – on what is a “follower” can do us in. Followers are that important.

For this reason, this blog – my intermittent posts – will be as dedicated in the future to followers as to leaders.

Which brings me to today’s point. Like leaders, followers come in different shapes and sizes, and they play different roles. One type of follower is the whistleblower.

  • Whistleblowers are followers who try to stop their leaders from being bad by publicly exposing their noxious – as in illegal, or abusive, or unsafe – behaviors.  

Another type of follower is the enabler.

  • Enablers are followers who allow or even encourage their leaders to engage in, and then to persist in, behaviors that are destructive.

Whistleblowers are followers in that they try to stop bad behaviors in their superiors, that is, in those who have more power, authority and influence than they. Enablers are followers in that they allow, encourage, even support bad behaviors in those who are their superiors, that is, in those who have more power, authority, and influence than they.

Whistleblowers and enablers are, then, at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Which is why followers who are whistleblowers should be admired and protected – and followers who are enablers should be derided and disabled.

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