Monday, 22 February 2016

Kelley's Five Followership Styles

It is interesting how much we focus on leadership, because in doing so, we forget about the other key players in the process: followers.

Like good leaders, good followers need to develop some sound characteristics. Consider a good sports team. We have those who lead and those who follow, at different times, and for different reasons, within a game. The team relies on the expertise and abilities of those with the required skill set, as the team needs the skills in question.

To be able to access those skills on the fly, the team has to be aware of the talents available and who possesses them. No one can be passive, and everyone has to be a good thinker.

In fact, there are two key parameters that we, as followers, need to display: critical thinking, and active behaviour.

The critical thinking is where we are mindful of what is going on around us, and of what the team needs for their outcome to be achieved. It is not about us: it is about the organisational goal.

Active behaviour is where we don't sit back and wait for others to put their hands up: we get on and do it, if we are the best qualified.

Based on these two ideas - critical thinking and active behaviour - Robert E. Kelley thought about two continua: the first being independent, critical thinking, versus dependent, uncritical thinking; the second being active versus passive behaviour.

Based on those two continua, came up with his Five Followership Styles model, which are:
  1. Effective: a follower who is both a critical, independent thinker and active in behaviour. They exhibit consistent behaviour to all people, regardless of their power in the organisation, and deal well with conflict and risk. They cope with change, put forward their own views, and stay focused on what the organisation needs. They understand how others see them - so are mindful. They make acts of leadership often, and use their referent, expert, network and information power often in service of the organisation. Kelly called this group originally "The Stars".
  2. Conformist: this follower type is very busy, but doesn't necessarily engage their brain to think through what it is they are doing. They participate very willingly but don't question orders. They will avoid conflict at all costs and take the quietest path, but will defend their boss to loyal extremes. Kelley originally named this follower type "The Yes-People".
  3. Passive: think of a two year old who doesn't want to do something and just goes floppy. This is the passive follower. They don't engage their brain enough, nor do they take concrete action. Robert Kelley called this group "The Sheep". While not showing any initiative nor responsibility, this follower type can be the result of micro-managers or a negative, over-controlling and blame-oriented culture.
  4. Alienated: this follower thinks extremely well, but for some reason often snipes from the sidelines. They have got stuck where they are, are very negative and feel they have lost their power. They have seen 'too much', have become bitter in their work from being passed over for promotion, or from having stayed too long in one position.
  5. Pragmatic Survivor: this follower type I think of as the organisational 'canary in the mine-shaft'. They can flip between different followership styles, to suit each situation, and are our early warning system when the organisation's culture is starting to change for the worse. We all know that there are some people who can see the writing on the wall early: identify them and use them to ensure that your work culture remains healthy at all times.
We can't have only exemplary followers in an organisation. New people can be passive or conformist, as we all try to minimise risk until we are comfortable and more certain of our environment. We need some pragmatic survivors so when the culture starts to deteriorate, we see our canaries pulling away and can run repairs prior to a breakdown. The devil's advocates - the Alienated - amongst us can spark new ways of thinking, if we can direct their criticism wisely and help them move into new roles which avoid bitterness.

But most of our profit comes from exemplary followers, our stars. Something to remember.


  • Daft, Richard L. (2007). The Leadership Experience (4th Edition). USA: Thomson South-Western.
  • Kelley, Robert E. (1988). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, November 1988, Volume 66, issue 6 (pp. 142-148).
  • Rohde, Susan, & Ford, Deb (2007). Determining Your Followership Style. USA: Roosevelt University. Retrieved on 6 January 2008 from

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