Effective Followership – The Holy Grail of Improved Employee Engagement? by Keith Stanton

I have always enjoyed coming across philosophical statements that encapsulate life. One of my favorites has always been “that which I am aware of I can control, that which I am unaware of controls me”. The premise that by raising awareness you can achieve a greater degree of performance has manifested itself in numerous areas of my own life with much success.

So, when I began to research the concept of “followership” I was immediately struck by one damning statistic. I Googled the word leadership and I got about 535,000,000 hits, I Googled “followership” and I got 421,000 hits, which in Google terms is insignificant. And yet everyone one of us fulfills a follower role within our organisations, whether we are the CEO or the newest employee. If the awareness of followership is so low, could raising awareness of the intricacies of the “Effective Followership” concept be the Holy Grail answer to improving employee engagement?

The biggest challenge is that most people consider followership as a label to put on an individual rather than a description of a behavioural trait displayed by that individual at any given time. And therein lies the problem. We keep confusing the role of the follower and the concept of followership.

Of course, all this would be semantics if the leadership within our organisations was outstanding. But it is not. Recent statistics from the national NHS staff survey show a very mixed picture of staff engagement scores with the average being around the 69% mark. Where else in the NHS is a score of 69% acceptable; Health & Safety Compliance, patient targets, `waiting list attainment, budget achievements? And yet when it comes to our staff, the most valuable of resource within our organisations, our paucity of ambition is underlined by our acceptance of these poor engagement scores. Why are they not 90%+? I have had the fortune to be part of teams where it is. But that’s not always the case. The answer could possibly be that our leadership thinking, our 180-degree fascination of the leader being at the top of something, is outdated and unfit for purpose. Yet we and our institutions are wedded to it. Todays’ leaders all too often fail to demonstrate Effective Followership traits. They are seen as non-authentic individuals, their actions not matching their words, they are driven by ego and dominated by an accountancy paradigm that is pervasive and destructive. The number is NOT the most important thing, the most important thing is that which produces the number, and that folks is the people.

A leader’s job is to release the potential within their staff, to assist them in moving from A-D, and perhaps helping them to define what ’D’ actually looks, feels and sounds like. I often relate this to ‘agricultural thinking’. In this sense a farmer’s job is to get the best out the seed that they can, irrelevant of the external conditions that are outside his or her control. They can prepare the soil for the seed to go into, but once the seed is in the ground all that the farmer can do is to regulate the environment that the seed sits in. They can add nitrates, irrigate and hydrate, keep the pests at bay, but that is all.

Well I believe our leaders job is the same. They can ensure that the physical working environment that an individual operates in, is as good as it can possibly be, but the emotional environment that the leader creates is of primary critical importance. Because of the way our organisations are structured and the dominance of the accountancy paradigm, that emotional environment generated locally is often sub optimal in releasing potential. I am still to find many organisations that meaningfully measure the emotional climate that their ‘leaders’ create within the workplace, and yet this is a key defining factor. Why don’t we? Is it because there are too many painful home truths needed to be faced around our addiction to leadership thinking? Is it just ‘too difficult’ to do? Or has our thinking just not caught up with the changes within our society?

Well Covid-19 has come along and has seriously messed up the apple cart and we are now in a very new phase of working life. Our traditional leader structures are seriously under threat and unless we equip our leaders with the right mind-sets for working in this new world then we are going to find the change difficult. I certainly believe that the time has arrived for all organisations to reconsider the value of Effective Followership thinking development within their team structures.

Effective followers display high levels of courage and are willing to take massive levels of responsibility. When you begin to compile the list of desired behaviours of an Effective Follower you begin to realize that this list is aspirational and that in reality all of us fall some way short of achieving this high standard 1.

But our research uncovered one very uncomfortable finding, especially for those who still believe that leadership is the answer to employee engagement; people do not follow leaders, they follow effective followers. When the boss asks if anyone has any questions it is the effective follower who raises her hand and gives permission to everyone else to follow. This distinction is crucial.

Therefore, by raising awareness in the management community of the key components of effective followership it is very easy to make the distinction that an effective leader is one who creates the right environment for effective followership to flourish. However, an inherent ignorance of the importance of Effective Followership, the over reliance on target-based management, overbearing procedures and hierarchies create interference and poor performance.

I truly wonder how aware are staff of the environment they are creating within their teams; or is the environment controlling them?


  1. McKimm J, Vogan CL. Followership: much more than simply following the leader BMJ Leader Published Online First: 06 February 2020. doi: 10.1136/leader-2019-000162

Keith Stanton

Keith Stanton is Managing Director of Votive Leadership Consultancy Limited

Email: keith@votiveleadership.com


Conflicts of interest 

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: Keith Stanton is a Faculty Member of the NHS Leadership Academy.

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