Followership and Relational Leadership

Session Aims

  • Recap on limitations of leader-centric approaches
  • Introduce follower-centric approaches to leadership
  • Highlight the benefits of follower-centric approaches to our understanding of leadership and the leader-follower relationship
  • Discuss psychoanalytic and relational approaches to leadership and their relevance for our understanding of followership

Recap on limitations of leader-centric approaches

  • Recognition that most of the 20th century theories on leadership and management have treated the follower as passive, ignoring the interactive nature of leader-follower relationships
  • This has led to:
    • The lack of acknowledgement of followers as active agents
    • A power asymmetry between leader and follower
    • An over-reliance on the leader to be the main source of organisational success

©Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014)

Approaches to Followers in Leadership Studies (Shamir, 2007)

CategoryContributions                                                 Focus
Followers as recipients of leadershipTraits, Styles, Transformation and Charismatic The follower is treated as passive and at the leadership theories                                               receiving end within the leadership process
Followers as moderators of leadershipEarly Contingency TheoriesSpecific aspects of the followers’ knowledge, attributes and task will influence or moderate effective leadership
Followers as substitutes of leadershipSubstitutes of leadership theoryFollower characteristics that can either neutralise or negate the need for leadership
Followers as constructors of leadershipRomance of Leadership, Psychoanalytic Approach, Implicit Leadership Theories, Social Identity TheoryWhat we see as leadership and what is effective is constructed by those who follow
Followers as leadersDistributed or shared leadershipLeadership is done by and for everybody and becomes the essence of being and acting in an organisation
Followers as co-producers of leadershipUhl-Bien and Pallai (2007), Relational approaches to leadershipThe leader-follower relationship is examined further and seen as socially co-constructed by leader and follower

©Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014)

Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) – Anand et al. 2011)

  • Centres on the interactions between leaders and followers (A dyadic relationship)
  • Works on the premise that employees naturally have
  • In-group relationships: characterised by expanded, enriched and individually negotiated leaders need to build effective dyads with all role responsibilities
  • Out group relationships: based predominantly on the formal employment contract and hence defined role
  • This theory incorporating followers’ personalities and other personal characteristics as affecting dyad processes
  • Leadership Making: vital for leaders to develop as many highquality exchanges and work relationship as possible

©Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014)

Move towards follower-centric approaches

  • Key contributions such as ‘Romance of Leadership’ (Meindl et al., 1985) helped to highlight lack of proof of importance and impact of heroic leaders
    • Encouraged greater interest in followers and the exploration of the leader-follower relationship
    • Also criticised the taken-for-granted assumption that leadership is something inherently good
    • Stressed negative implications of an exaggerated belief in leaders
  • Over the last two decades, we have seen edited books such as Shamir et al. (2007) and Riggio et al. (2008) taking this emphasis further

The study of followership

  • Carsten et al. (2010) suggest we need to differentiate between:
    • follower perspectives of leadership (follower-centric approaches)
    • follower perspectives on followership (followership approaches)
  • Research into Followership approaches has so far explored
    • Implicit Followership Theories (Sy, 2010)
    • Typologies of follower behaviours and roles (Kelley, 1988; Kellerman, 2008; Howell and Mendez, 2008)

Typology of follower behaviours

Example: Kelley (1988, 1992)

  • The Sheep = passive and uncritical
  • The Yes People =  active but uncritical
  • The alienated = independent/critical but passive
  • The pragmatic = middle of the road
  • The Star = independent/critical and active = effective
  • Back to writing lists…?

Future of follower-centric perspectives

  • Need to explore and understand further follower roles and qualities in different contexts (Kelley, 2008)
  • Explore and challenge the negative connotations of follower in the English language, i.e. second, inferior to the leader
  • Explore and challenge the taken for granted power asymmetry in the leader-follower relationship (Collinson, 2008)
  • Look at leader and follower as equal co-producers of the relationship that we describe as leadership (Rost, 2008)
  • Explore the importance of context and culture in relation to leadership, followership processes and the leader-follower relationship (Bligh, 2011)

Psychoanalytic approaches to leadership

  • A focus on the unconscious helps to further understand how followers come to accept and follow certain types of leaders and how this is linked to unconscious emotions and desires related to early childhood experiences (Gabriel, 2011)
  • Fantasies are manifestations of the subconscious and represent unconscious desires, ultimately influencing our behaviour in leader-follower relations

Psychoanalytic approaches to leadership

• The leader-follower relationship:

  • Freud (1921) described it as inevitably ambivalent as follower both love and envy, need and resent the leader
  • Following a leader enables a group to form and sustain based on the shared emotional experience of identifying and idealising that particular leader
  • Bion (1961) further explored how intense emotional ties can evoke ‘psychological regression to a child-like dependence’ – followers believe in omnipotence of the leader
  • Awakening from this fantasy of the heroic leader leads to disappointment (Ford, 2010)

Psychoanalytic approaches to leadership

  • Implications for leadership:
    • May explain why followers can be susceptible to toxic or narcissistic leaders
    • Importance to contain and manage anxieties as key leadership role
    • Sensitivity to the subconscious side of the leader-follower relationship and the ability of leaders for true empathy and to engage with followers at an emotional level sets them apart from managers (Zaleznik, 1977)
    • Gabriel (2011) warns that such management of emotion is very complex

Relational approaches to leadership

  • Emergent field of leadership studies that focusses less on the separate role of leader and follower but on the coproduced relational process itself
  • The relational process  of leadership is seen as social, cognitive and political (Hosking, 2011: 456)
    • Leader and followers construct who they are in relation to the context they are in, thus co-constructing the context
    • A relational leader is somebody who is engaged in true dialogue and who is morally and relationally responsive and responsible (Cunliffe and Eriksen, 2011)
    • Relational leadership involves working with the fluid, co-constructed nature of leader-follower relations by encouraging multiple dialogue, working with different, fluid notions of self and inviting different views and actions rather than imposing consensus

Looking for Relational Leadership Crevani (2015)

  • Framing – ‘a metaphorical expression conveying the idea of putting a situation into perspective’
  • Positioning – ‘refers… to how positions are shaped in conversations ad simultaneously placed in certain kinds of relations and configurations, which have consequences for how people act (Davies and Harré, 2001)’
  • Bridging – ‘refers to practices in which actors are brought together and interdepencies are created and/or intensified.’


  • Anand, S. et al. (2011) Leader-Member Exchange: Recent Findings and Prospects for the Future. In A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson and M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Leadership. London: Sage, 311-325.
  • Bligh, M.C. (2011) Followership and follower-centred approaches. In A. Bryman, D.

Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson and M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Leadership. London: Sage, 425-436.

  • Carsten, M.K., Uhl-Bien, M., West, B.J., Patera, J.L. and McGregor, R. (2010) Exploring social constructions of followership: a qualitative study. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3): 543-562.
  • Collinson, D. (2008) Conformist, resistant and disguised selves: a post-structuralist approach to identity and workplace followership. In R. Riggio, I. Chaleff and J. LipmenBlumen (eds.) The Art of Followership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 309-324.
  • Crevani, L. (2015) Relational Leadership. In B Carroll, J. Ford and S. Taylor (Eds.) Leadership: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Sage. (pp.188-211).
  • Cunliffe, A.L. and Eriksen, M. (2011) Relational leadership. Human Relations, 64(11): 1425-1449.
  • Davies, B., and Harré, R. (2001) Positioning: The discursive production of selves. In M. Wetherell, S. Taylor and S.J. Yates (Eds.) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader. London: Sage.
  • Ford, J. (2010) Studying leadership critically: a psychosocial lens on leadership identities. Leadership, 6(1): 47-65.

References 2

  • Hosking, D.M. (2011) Moving relationality: meditations on a relational approach to leadership. In A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson and M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Leadership. London: Sage, 455-467.
  • Howell, J.P. and Mendez, M.J. (2008) Three perspectives on followership. In Riggio, R. Chaleff, I. and Lipmen-Blumen, J. (eds.) The Art of Followership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 25-40.
  • Kellerman, B. (2008) Followership: How followers are creating change and changing leader. Harvard Business School Press.
  • Kelley, R.E. (1988) In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 66: 141.148.
  • Kelley, R.E. (1992) The power of followership. New York: Doubleday.
  • Meindl, J.R., Erlich, S.B. and Dukerich, J.M. (1985) The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1): 78-108.
  • Riggio, R. Chaleff, I. and Lipmen-Blumen, J. (eds.) The Art of Followership, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Rost, J. (2008) Followership: an outmoded concept. In Riggio, R. Chaleff, I. and Lipmen-Blumen, J. (eds.) The Art of Followership, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 53.
  • Shamir, B. (2007), From passive recipients to active co-producers, in B. Shamir et al.

(Eds.), Follower-centred perspectives on leadership, Information Age Publishing

  • Sy, T. (2010) What do you think of followers? Examining the content, structure, and consequences of implicit followership theories. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 113(2): 73-84.