Courageous followership requires holding leaders accountable while actively supporting their growth and effectiveness.
Those of us who have specialized in developing future leaders often discuss how they find the courage to lead and enact social change. But, we rarely mention how people can develop the courage to follow. Not everyone has a desire to lead, but many still want to support social justice and the transformation of their communities. Yet, as Ira Chaleff (2009), a pioneer in the study of followership, notes, “the most capable followers in the world will fail if they gripe about their leaders, but don’t help them improve” (p. xix). Being a follower is not to assume a passive role, but to enter a relationship of empowerment with our leaders built upon common purpose and shared values.
Chaleff (2009) offers five dimensions for the ways people can become courageous followers. The first is the Courage to Assume Responsibility for ourselves and others by discovering or creating opportunities where we can initiate values-based actions to achieve shared objectives. The second, Courage to Serve, asks followers to assume new or additional responsibilities to unburden and to defend – stand up for – the leader. These two dimensions seem relatively safe and easy, but then we must turn to dimensions that may feel riskier. The Courage to Challenge calls us to voice uneasiness, risk rejection, and deal with the emotional consequences of a strained relationship with the leader and fellow followers. The Courage to Participate in Transformation is not only to champion change – but to stick around and see the project through even when things do not go well or according to plan. Finally, the Courage to Take Moral Action spurs followers to adhere to a higher set of values and potentially place themselves at personal risk when they need to exercise their dissent or disobey.
Both those who choose to lead and those who choose to follow must understand and accept the dual responsibility of creating systems change. Chaleff (2009) also offers leaders two dimensions to increase the effectiveness and empowerment of their followers by having the Courage to Speak to the Hierarchy and exercise their influence upward, as well as the Courage to Listen to Followers and not feel threatened by, but support their courageous followers. This is more difficult than it sounds for many leaders. Consequently, followers must also exercise the patience and persistence often required of leaders when working toward transformational change.
Ridding ourselves of the idea that followers are passive and blindly obey their leaders is critical to developing the courageous follower. Courageous followers are active participants who drive the process of change and stand up for their leaders, but also speak uncomfortable truths and hold their leaders accountable for breaching shared values in their actions and decisions. The courageous follower must do both and not only defend or only criticize. Courageous followers should also relate to their leaders with a sense of balance, perspective, and sensitivity to the internal and external pressures on the system. Followers and leaders are joined in a mutual struggle for change through common purpose and must be aware of the potential of fragmenting the relationship and rendering it ineffective for achieving shared goals.
While Chaleff writes in the context of organizations, and with the assumption followers have access and proximity to their leaders, these dimensions can serve people who want to increase their ability to be an effective follower in many situations. With the rise in mediated communication, such as social media and email, the space between followers and leaders is shrinking. This is particularly true of elected officials and their constituents. This promises a new era of mutuality in building common goals and developing strategic values‑based actions for enacting social change in a time when our institutions and social norms are becoming increasingly compromised in the Era of Trump. By developing oneself and others to be courageous followers, not only will followers be empowered, leaders will also improve their abilities and effectiveness. The awareness of the leader‑follower relationship as one that is active, reciprocal, values-based, and focused on transformational change is a first step.
Chaleff, I. (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.