There has been significant effort and press defining the properties and characteristics of leadership. There are probably hundreds of discrete classifications of leadership styles, each with its own unique perspective on what makes a great leader. However, few of these approaches mention the most significant common factor: followers. A focus on followers, or why and how people follow a leader, is perhaps more instructive to the development of future leaders.
The Umwelt of Followership
Umwelt is a term used to describe the different perspectives individuals can have when viewing the same situation (Suderman, 2012). Suderman documents the umwelton of followership as a means of understanding how perspectives of followership shape the success of those that would lead. The umwelton documented include: position, power, situational, and partner.
Positional and power umwelton are somewhat traditional views of followership. In each of these, the follower/leader dynamic is based on the perceptions of hierarchy and power typical of many organizations. Leaders are defined by their roles within the organization and/or the authority they hold to induce followers to comply. Conversely, followers perform simply because they do not have position or authority to do otherwise. In this sense, leadership and followership have no relation to individual capabilities, only to circumstances. Followers follow, but only through fear.
Situational umvelt defines leadership/followership based on the needs of the situation. Much like the views of interdependent leadership (McCauley et al., 2008), this umwelt is characterized by leadership coming from the elevation of individuals based on expertise or idiosyncratic capabilities not found elsewhere. Interdependent leadership cultures are characterized as those treating leadership as a collective, collaborative process transcending any specific individual, while encompassing all individuals within the organization (McCauley et al., 2008). This idea of interdependent leadership, where leadership materializes through an adaptive, collaborative process is consistent with the descriptions of an actor-oriented scheme of organizational structure documented by Fjeldstad, Snow, Miles, & Lettl (2012). The concept of hierarchy, at least in terms of providing specific direction or work effort, is minimized. Both constructs suggest the complexity and challenges of modern markets/environments gives rise to the need for new methods of organization/leadership commensurate with these complexities. This perspective has been famously followed by Netflix, as well as Zappos. It’s long-term effectiveness for organizations has not been proven.
Finally, the partner umwelt is characterized, not by position, power, or situation, but by motives and intent (Suderman, 2012). Followers choose to follow a leader because they believe in the purpose and goals the leader puts forth. This umwelt encapsulates the idea that followers and leaders are co-dependent, but “. . . leaders can only lead when enabled by followers” (Suderman, 2012, p. 16). Those in leadership roles may still have the position, power, or specific knowledge backing them in directing the actions of others, and still not be leaders in the minds of those they direct. Followership is a state of mind, a true commitment to those that lead and the belief in where they are leading. The umwelt of partner followership has a profound implication to what leadership truly is.
The Importance of Followership Perspective
The importance of understanding the umwelton of followership is critical towards becoming an effective leader. Just being in a leadership role does not make you a leader. Having position or power might result in people doing what you tell them, but does not necessarily make you a leader of people. It also doesn’t mean that people will be engaged, perform their best, or go the extra mile to achieve superior outcomes. They will simply do the least amount necessary.
True leaders focus more on the goals, the purpose, and the intent of where they are leading and convince others the destination is worth the effort. True leaders understand that leadership is about harnessing the beliefs and desires of the entire organization towards a single goal, rather than building their own legacy. While putting the group first is not a natural tendency, it is a core requirement for building the trust necessary for true leadership (Collins, 2001; Collins & Porras, 2002; Sinek, 2014). And, once a leader convinces others to follow, it doesn’t matter if they are in a leadership role or not.
Only followers can choose whom they follow; and, without true followers there are no true leaders. Leaders never accomplish anything on their own.
Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (2002). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Fjeldstad, Ø. D., Snow, C. C., Miles, R. E., & Lettl, C. (2012). The architecture of collaboration. Strategic Management Journal, 33(6), 734–750. Retrieved from 10.1002/smj.1968
McCauley, C. D., Palus, C. J., Drath, W. H., Hughes, R. L., McGuire, J. B., O’Connor, P. M. G., & Van Velsor, E. (2008). Interdependent leadership in organizations: Evidence from six case studies. A Center for Creative Leadership Report. Retrieved from http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:Interdependent+Leadership+in+Organizations:+Evidence+from+six+case+studies#0
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t (Kindle). New York, NY: Penquin Group.
Suderman, J. (2012). The umwelt of followership. Strategic Leadership Review, 1(1). Retrieved from http://scholar.google.com/