Following and Leading


This week, Mark Upton has shared two links about leadership (link). The first was by Paul Taylor and was titled Ending Our Obsession With Leadership (link). The second was by Rosie Angharad and was titled Caring: the bread and butter of sports coaching (link).


Thanks to Jo Gibson’s work (link), I find it very difficult to contemplate leadership without considering followership and to move away from a leader-centric paradigm (link). like Nicolas Bastardoza and Mark van Vugtbt (2019) (link) I wonder “why individuals would relinquish their autonomy and set aside their personal goals to follow those of another individual, the leader”. Nicolas and Mark use an evolutionary perspective to study followership. They suggest “that humans have an adaptive followership psychology that enables them to (swiftly) coordinate their actions with other individuals when it is advantageous to do so”. They add humans have “a flexible followership psychology that enables them to select and follow the right kind of leaders under the right conditions, determine an appropriate engagement level, and switch from being a follower to a leader whenever appropriate” (my emphasis).

Nicolas and Mark “consider leadership and followership as adaptive solutions to various kinds of organizational challenges associated with group living”. They define followers as “individuals who adopt the leader’s goals temporally or structurally and freely accept the influence of leaders” (original emphasis). Followership is viewed as a voluntary deference process.

Nicolas and Mark observe “once individuals have identified a need for coordination, different follower mechanisms are being activated”. Their adaptive followership system “contains mechanisms to (a) select an appropriate leader given certain environmental constraints or opportunities, (b) encourage these individuals to take on leadership roles, (c) monitor their effectiveness, and (d) switch leaders when needed”.

They conclude that followership “is a logical, inevitable consequence of the evolutionary need to live in groups and benefit from coordinated actions with other individuals”. They note “followership has been the default strategy across human evolution, shaping our minds, and allowing our species to thrive in increasingly large, well-coordinated groups”.

In the first of Mark Upton’s links, Paul Taylor observes “organisations need to completely rethink what it means to lead. It’s not about one person or even those residing at the top anymore. In today’s world, everyone has to adopt a leadership mindset. We have to think of ourselves as members of a leadership community” (link). Paul notes “The real traits that matter such as empathy or self awareness, are key attributes for all human beings“. He argues “unless we address the root of the system, unless we really address how organisations make decisions and engage people, then we are not changing anything materially”. He concludes “breeding the idea of the leader as superhero is getting us nowhere fast”.

In the second of Mark Upton’s links, Rosie Angharad looks at caring (link). Rosie asks “are we dehumanising the pedagogical endeavour of sports coaching?” as she explores the control exerted over athletes’ lives. Her post looks at caring about and caring for. She observes that “caring for requires the establishment of relation”. She concludes “the bread and butter of sports coaching is often explained as bibs, balls, cones and a brain full of knowledge. Maybe, we need to retrace our steps, re-evaluate our relations and master the art of care ethics”.


I am hopeful that Mark Upton and Jo Gibson will have lots to discuss about leading and following. Both challenge the charisma focused paradigm of leadership and invite us to think of an alternative that includes adaptive followership.

Back in 2007, the University of Illinois used social network software (CommDy) to track zebras (link). They observed “to better understand human behavior, tracking the social habits of zebras may be a good place to start”. In the research project a number of the zebras were fitted with GPS tracking collars “that provided researchers with a more accurate picture of life among the herd, showing how animals interact and which one leads the herd to flee when predators, notably lions, are near”.

What I thought important about this research was its focus on social relationships, and how one group of zebras thrived because of their social connections as a herd. The research group published some of its findings in 2015 (link). I do think this research resonates powerfully with Nicolas and Mark’s evolutionary approach to followership and invites us to do that rethinking that is so necessary and so important.

Photo Credit

Grevy Zebras (Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, UIC Today)

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