In evaluating leaders, at the top of a company, or in the ranks of company leadership, an important quality that I look for is followership. Specifically, will the team line up behind this person?

Of course, leaders have to have other qualities. They need to have domain expertise if they are leading a specific function, they need to understand the needs of the business and the sector that it is operating in, and many other things too.

But what I have learned is that followership is super important. If the team doesn’t line up behind a leader, it is extremely hard for them to be effective.

For internal promotions, it is relatively easy to see followership and promote people who have it. You can also help people develop the management skills (listening, communicating, etc) that lead to strong followership.

When hiring someone from the outside, determining if they will have followership is harder. You can reference for this quality. But to some extent followership is a function of the culture of the organization. Someone who had strong followership in one kind of organization may not find it in another one.

It can take a leader some time to develop followership, particularly if they are hired from the outside. The team will need some time to figure out this new person, how they operate, and how they feel about them. But if a new leader has not developed the followership they need to lead the organization, or a part of the organization, within six to nine months after joining, then it is likely that a change will need to be made.

When developing your own organization and internal leaders, you should be very specific about followership and the need to develop it on your team. You should help mentor and coach younger managers on how to develop it and you should move quickly on leaders who don’t have it and won’t develop it on their teams.

It is always so impressive to me to see what leaders with strong followership can accomplish, when everyone is lined up behind them and delivering on what they ask of the organization. That is what I would wish for every organization, but sadly many don’t have it and they underperform as a result.


Comments (Archived):

  1. William Mougayar

    To add, while leadership can be taught, followership is earned. Interesting it used to be called “being a team player”, but recently followership has been studied because of its strong linkage to results.

    1. Adam Parish

      Results / Longevity. However, they should be equal.

    2. JamesHRH

      Will, ‘used to be called?’

      1. William Mougayar

        correction: is also manifested as…. 🙂

    3. Donna Brewington White

      But doesn’t being a team player also encompass relationships with peers, etc.?

  2. gotham42

    Thanks for sharing Fred. Who are some people with great followership and what makes them who they are?

  3. Bart Hacking

    I think all of us know and feel when a leader has followership and when a leader doesn’t, even if we don’t know what to call it (before this post I hadn’t consider a term like followership for what I had thought of as the difference between “natural leaders” and everyone else). I’ve often thought of followership as being largely innate. How does an org mentor and promote followership in its leaders?

  4. Pointsandfigures

    in order to lead, you first need to learn how to follow

    1. fredwilson


    2. JamesHRH

      sounds neat, makes no sense.Every organization has leadership positions that are based on criteria unique to the group activity.The Toronto Raptors are being led to the NBA Finals by Kawhi Leonard. When did he ‘follow’? He did his job in one of the most disciplined NBA environments in history & then absolutely refused to follow.Now he is doing what he does the way he does it and the Raptors are performing at a very high level.In the NFL, QB is a leadership position b:c it touches the ball every play on O.In the MBA, it’s your best scorer.Same in NHL.Expectations, accountability & trust.

      1. BillMcNeely

        All these guys have a coach and owner who provide strategic guidance or school of thought ie West Coast offense,, Triangle Offense Four Corner Stall. Some people work in one system and some in others.

  5. Matt Zagaja

    I once was in a situation where I was in two orgs: one where I had high followership and one with low or no followership. Boy was that tough. From that I learned a lot about hiring and values.

    1. JamesHRH

      Sorry, this reads as blaming others.

      1. Matt Zagaja

        My roommates don’t like to take out the recycling and while I appreciate some folks may view the challenge as me being insufficiently persuasive in getting them to do that, at some point they own some of that responsibility too.

        1. JamesHRH

          Fire their assess.

  6. Anne Libby

    But to some extent followership is a function of the culture of the organizationI’m not sure that followership is one thing — it’s not innate. Support from other senior leaders matters. The level of trust that exists in an organization matters. An ability for a leader to develop trust with people on your team (and pretty much everyone else) matters. Politics matter.IMO whether someone’s leadership will be accepted is 100% a function of an organization’s culture, and how well they can operate within it.When senior leaders are self-aware about how an organization’s culture actually operates, and are able/willing to take the time, they can do a lot to onboard a new hire and help them to become effective.

  7. Adam Parish

    I’ve been asked what makes a good team so many times. The answer is simple – TRUST. The fastest way to create trust is when a team is under pressure. Trust will form a bond or the team will splinter. Situations * (Trust + Communication) = Performance

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Trust is crucial.I recently interviewed someone’s former direct report as a reference. His loyalty to our candidate was formed when he was able to observe his boss’s demeanor and behavior during a time of intense pressure. The other reason for his loyalty, i.e., followership, was his boss’s commitment to proactively supporting him.Lessons can be learned from this.

  8. awaldstein

    Well stated Fred.From an operational perspective, this idea of followership is different group by group.The dynamics of how this works in sales, BD, marketing are dramatically different and when you hire leaders for these groups you see that immediately and need to think as much about how followership works down into large groups and up into the executive team.

  9. jason wright

    Shared vision, well articulated.

  10. JamesHRH

    Stupid term.Strong performance is about trust and accountability based on reasonable expectations. Basic teamwork that anyone who has played in any artistic or sports team would know.All this other stuff is bafflegab.And, obviously, redacted clothing is a loser trying to make other losers feel better about being on the losing side of the fight (think I’ll make commenting on closed posts a tradition #weaksauce).Just take the L & try to be an adult.

    1. Pointsandfigures

      His entire career Leonard led? Bet he learned to follow in HS and college and I bet he learned playing for Popovich (See Poppy’s undergrad school). You learn ok eadership skills by observation and trying. As a rookie Leonard could not have carried a team. He wasn’t ready mentally. Just because you follow sometimes doesn’t mean you aren’t a leader. Great leaders know when to delegate and follow

      1. JamesHRH

        It’s babble.Do your job.Part of setting expectations is to have a trust based conversation between jobs.When you agree on what is to happen, the person who has the ‘hold people accountable ‘ job needs to do it.Otherwise, chaos.

  11. Tom Labus

    At some point, early on, your immediate team ++ knows whether you’re speaking corporate gibberish or straight up. Once they realize that you are being straight up with them, it releases group wide courage to try and do new things. Knowing that their back is covered helps too.

    1. Philippe Platon

      Amen to that. The opposite gives opposite results quite fast.

  12. William Mougayar

    The flip side of followership is that if the leader chooses the wrong path, they can also take everyone into the ditch faster.

  13. Lawrence Brass

    Here, I often see clans within organizations. Without being part of some important clan its is difficult to achieve things.I think that effective communication and leading by example are the core skills required for followership development.

  14. ShanaC

    The other quality – self propagating followership – or what qualities cause people to follow across a network where they don’t know you.It is a lot easier to manage when people self manage due to the propagation of beliefs

  15. Vinish Garg

    Absolutely. I have seen that many organizations have selected primary functions of their leaders. While a few have *results* even if *culture* is their not strength, others invest more in *culture*, and few others invest more in *positioning (being the face of brand, PR)*.In all cases, *followship* is equally important contributor to that function – whether to results, or to culture, or to positioning.

  16. sigmaalgebra

    Ah, in investing there’s another, simpler, more comprehensive way to “evaluate leaders”: Have they built a company for a huge market that has revenue significantly high and growing rapidly?If not, then not much else is sufficient or matters.If so, then not much else is necessary or matters. Or if being good at having followers was important for that business, then likely they already ARE good at having followers. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter.Or for some math, just say that the state of the company is the pair the current revenue and its rate of growth. A Markov process is when the past and the future are conditionally independent given the current value of the state — in effect that means that we have a good definition of state. If make the state the full past history of the process, then every stochastic process is Markov. A deterministic process is Markov.Well, maybe the stochastic process of a company is Markov with the state revenue and growth rate. In this case, the past of the company, e.g., followership, and the future are conditionally independent given the state which means that for predicting the future, given the state, nothing more in the past can help in the prediction. Or in part, intuitively, if followership was really important to the state, then we have to expect that with a desirable state the situation on follwership is already sufficiently good.This is all simplistic but, still, in some important real cases apparently close enough to reality to be not really wrong and, instead, essentially correct.Note: This does NOT claim that followership is irrelevant or not important just that given the state it does not help in predicting the future. Or, if don’t have the state, then maybe follwership would be quite important and a relatively good predictor of the future.Uh, some people have worked really hard on this stuff about what information matters when, by how much, and why and when not. For results of broad generality, it’s good stuff.

  17. JamesHRH

    Give in to the temptation. It’s BS.

  18. Girish Mehta

    “In the end, how people respond to and follow any leader is going to be more about results than any other characteristic”.+1. Have seen this every time.p.s. BTW, this can be an “improper” thing to say in a corporation :), for the obvious reasons.

  19. Richard

    What goes wrong without leadership and failing to listen to advice (mine)NYT At Nurx in addition to the unorthodox reshipment of returned drugs, executives tried to revise a policy on birth control for women over 35, even though state medical laws typically bar people without medical licenses from influencing medical policy. One Nurx customer also suffered a life-threatening blood clot after taking birth control pills she ordered through the app.“It was this mentality of ‘Don’t ask for permission — ask for forgiveness later,’” said Dr. Jessica Knox, Nurx’s former medical director, who worked there from 2015 until this January.

  20. sigmaalgebra

    Thanks. Good topic and response. I was hoping you would give a good response.Here’s what looks like a good example of a leader with a devoted follower:https://upload.wikimedia.or…Growing up, I had less than zilch in leadership training, but at times I was seen as a leader: Just why is instructive, e.g., suggests that the main forces are primitive and not necessarily very thoughtful, wise, effective, or desirable.(1) Grades 1-6. My school was a bit negligent about the social environment on the playgrounds, so what happened was gangs formed and fought. I didn’t form a gang, but sometimes they surrounded and threatened to attack me. I would pick one of the gang members and charge them, and they would turn and run. After no more than three times, the gang would disperse and leave me alone.I was big for my age, and after beating off some gangs that way, a child asked “May I join your gang?”. Gads. We paid school taxes for such education?But, sure, a point, right there from the early grades, was that some perceived strength can spontaneously generate some followers. That is, this follower emotion, propensity from perceived strength bubbles up even in grades 1-6. We’re talking primitive stuff here, not necessarily very thoughtful stuff.(2) High School. In trig class, I had a shootout at the board with the student later voted “Most Intellectual”. He was the guy I beat by a few points on the Math SAT and went to MIT. It was a challenging little trig exercise. He did it with the usual recipe, which was a little thoughtless and has a flaw which he had encountered. I’d long since seen the flaw, had avoided it, and that day won.An hour later between class one of the pretty girls my age walked up to me in the hall and said “I heard what you did in trig class.”. Sure, I’d picked up a follower, again, based on some version of perceived strength. So, teenage girls are attracted to that — primitive stuff again! I’d tried to get a ordinary word from her for five years, and it was a hallway, distaff gossip rumor about a trig exercise that worked! Ah, can’t make this stuff up!Men, if the a girl won’t make at least a little of a first move, then maybe don’t much try — maybe it’s not worth it and invites them to play pursuer-distancer with you, have fun manipulating you, etc.! Maybe much the same for VCs!Heck, dumb me — I thought it was just a trig problem! I should have asked her to share a chocolate soda after school at the drug store across from campus and then walked her home, got a movie date, etc.She was PRETTY and COULD be REALLY nice! She was just the right size in all the right places and overall, really pretty, bouncing ponytail, could be really nice, did I mention really pretty, likely soft, pretty, nice, did I mention pretty, and soft? And back in those days, they dressed and acted like, gee, what a surprise, GIRLS!!! Gee, what’s not to like!(3) Grad School. As a grad student, I was teaching trig to freshmen. After the class was over, after a symphony orchestra concert, I was standing shaking out a leg sore from exercise when the best student in the trig class walked up to say “Hi!”. Of course, there is always a hidden agenda, e.g., she was flirting. Again, it was some case of a teenage girl seeing strength — I’d been the teacher who knew trig really well effortlessly.So, being a little faster on the uptake than in high school, I invited her to the campus soda fountain and on the way escalated to an off campus pizza place and walking her back escalated to a movie the next night and before the movie called her and escalated to dinner at the nice, mostly for faculty, white tablecloth restaurant on campus before the movie, and got her with a corsage. It worked! So, I played on the perceived competence start. Fast progress for 24 hours!Lesson: That’s how Darwin has teenage girls behaving! Again, it’s primitive stuff and not necessarily really smart.(4) Working in software and applied math on Navy problems around DC, our group was bidding on some software to process some data gathered from submarine sea trials. One customer engineer wanted to do a simulation test of a new system he was designing for use on the submarines and wanted ocean wave noise for test input. So, he wanted (i) the power spectrum of the noise and (ii) generation of unlimited numbers of random “sample paths” of noise with that power spectrum. Without any authorization, I started on Monday and on Friday called him to the computer center and showed him the power spectrum estimation and the sample path generation.Later we had a dog and pony show before the customer, and I was asked to give a review of what I’d done. It was a competitive bid, but my work had gotten us “sole source”. Soon the manager of the group said “You are getting to be an important person around here.”. So, again it was competence. Surprise to me; I just thought I’d had some fun with stochastic processes!Exercise: Why might we be able to argue that the noise was at least ballpark Gaussian?(5) To help my wife recover from the stress of her Ph.D., I took a slot as a B-school prof. I only wanted to stay a year.The college had had a Computing Committee looking at getting better computing for the college. At a faculty meeting two weeks from the start of school, they gave their report — awful. While in grad school I’d run a good little computer center and served as tech lead on a new and bigger example, so I was up on computer shopping and what could be done, stood, and in a few words outlined what we might do. Twelve months later exactly that was in place and running with me as Chair, College Computing Committee. So, I became a leader of college computing.What worked, in formal and informal discussions during the decision making was just that one word, competence. I knew what the heck I was talking about. IBM got wind of the shopping and sent in two juniors — they left unhappy. They sent in a big team, just for me — they left unhappy. The university CIO was bitterly against me, and we had a shootout before my Dean — I won. IBM sent in their national super-salesman Buck Rodgers — he lost; I won. The key: Competence, I very much knew just what the heck I was talking about.The former Chair of the college computing committee, an accounting prof, walked up and said “Everything you promised worked out just as you promised.” So, I’d picked up a follower? I’d just wanted some good computing.Later I discovered that my department chair and other profs in the college were totally pissed off at me: Apparently I’d caused to be reallocated some of the budgets for carpet, draperies, photocopying, travel, and ugrad coeds for personal secretaries!E.g., the CIO who had fought me was OUT — maybe his claims that what I proposed wouldn’t work sank him; I can’t know for sure. So, I was put on the committee to pick a new campus CIO.There and more generally I quickly found that power struggles and alliances meant everything and competence, nothing or even negative.Competence can backfire: At one slot while I was in grad school, I was asked to evaluate the survivability of the US SSBN fleet under a special scenario of global nuclear war limited to sea, with results due in two weeks, which was fine since my wife had already scheduled for us a vacation in Shenandoah in two weeks plus a day. From some B. Koopman work, I saw that the encounter rates would be a Poisson process so saw a continuous time Markov process with, yes, a closed form solution but one too big to calculate. But Monte Carlo was easy enough to do, so I wrote the code. For a random number generator from D. Knuth I wrote in assemblerX(n+1) = X(n) * 5**15 + 1 mod 2**47which had done well at Oak Ridge.My code ran off 500 sample paths quickly. Famous probabilist J. Keilson passed my work; the Navy got their results; my wife got her vacation; some intelligence agency bought my work; and I was no longer welcome! First it was a bit amazing, and maybe threatening, for me to do that little piece of applied math and computing in two weeks. Second, some others used my random number generator for their Monte Carlo work, got significantly different answers, and no longer wanted me “in the middle of all their projects”.Lesson: One of the keys to being a good leader is competence, but one result can be jealousy and people who feel threatened, don’t want to follow, and, instead, want to gang up and fight. So, if are going to act like a leader, then maybe try to do this as a CEO and not some grad student supporting his wife and himself through school while working for others maybe less competent!On Fred’s question, it looked to me like the main way to get followers is to be competent, that is, show strength that the followers can find good for them. I discovered this just by accident as above.JLM’s response shows much more. I was guessing that the US military would know a LOT about leadership. THANKS!So, some exercises: In WWII, how did Ike lead? How did Churchill lead? How did Monty lead and react to Churchill and Ike? How did Patton and Bradley lead and react to Ike? What did Lloyd Fredendall do wrong? How did Rommel lead and react to Hitler? How did Patton in the landing at Sicily be a subordinate to Ike? How did Clark do at Anzio and with Ike? How did MacArthur lead in WWII and Korea? Why did Commander Rochefort — in an important sense one of the most important US people in all of WWII — get some big brass totally PISSED OFF at him and throw him out of code breaking? What were the roles of strength and competence by FDR, Marshall, and Nimitz and the roles of following by the others?My guess at a summary of those little exercises is that the leader-follower relationships were NOT simple. Generally the leader very much needed the competence of the follower, competence the leader did not really have, but then the leader could feel threatened, jealous, resentful of the competence of the follower.One danger in looking for “followership” is that may be looking at secondary, submissive, subordinate, subservient, obsequious, incompetent, goal-subordinating, “brown nose” suck ups. Each such individual is a threat to the organization, and a pattern of such is on the way to being fatal for the organization.A broad point is that BoD and especially finance people should not try to get involved in activities they have not already done well with in their own work, e.g., actual line management and operations. One fear a founding CEO has is destructive dictums from the BoD.At…is an example of a leader with a lot of followers — he got 70,000 or so ticket requests, packed the house, and had tens of thousands outside in the cold, some for 24 hours.Why? Well, in his speech he concentrated on — his competence in creating — JOBS.

  21. sigmaalgebra

    Recently I watched again the apparently quite good, 4 hours long in total, Frontline report on Gulf War I.I was shocked not to have noticed clearly before that part of the plan was that the US Marines attack directly into the SE part of the Iraqi forces and expected ballpark 30% US Marine casualties. Gads.. 30%. Gads. There SHOULD have been a better way than that!! E.g., get some high resolution recon and aim bombs accurately at each of the significant targets. We had total control of the air. Or if not bombs, then A-10 raids. Come ON — 30%???? In that case, we should have had the planners right at the head of the charge.Come ON — with all our advantages, there HAD to have been a MUCH better way than that.Well, in the end, and a surprise to us, was that there was already in place a MUCH better way: Nearly all the Iraqis had given up and deserted or were just waiting to surrender. The US Marines drove nearly full speed rarely hearing gun fire all the way to Kuwait City.So, it worked out great.But that planning, for 30% casualties — there HAD to have been a better way.

  22. JamesHRH

    This is a valid point and a terrific example.I have told tons of startup founders that the last thing they want is no other company trying to execute on the idea that is the foundation for their innovation.And I also told them that the the first one or two customers were important, but no where near as important as the first 10 or 20.It shows expectations being met, trust being built and implies that you will be accountable to customers 21+.Its also why tons of mercenary CEOs for Hire bring trusted lieutenants with them (which is likely a mistake, but you can see why it would happen).

  23. ShanaC

    It helps to learn what causes the first follower too

  24. sigmaalgebra

    I’ve seen that video clip and its claims before: For leadership, it’s got some points but generally is way to narrow.The main quality of leadership that creates followers is competence, and that is totally missing in this example. They are ganging together to have fun, really from being goofy for no good reason, but for the usual situations leadership the guy who started it is not really a leader, and the others are not really followers.

  25. Lawrence Brass

    Reliability and predictability are the main factors for me to trust a process or a person. Add human qualities as honor, and trust comes easily.The atoms of trust are made of fulfilled faith.

  26. Girish Mehta

    Planning is not about – this is how things will go right (ref. what Moltke the Elder said). Planning is about what to do when things go wrong.”Plans are nothing. Planning is everything”. – Eisenhower.

  27. Girish Mehta

    Brilliant comment Lawrence.

  28. William Mougayar

    Great. thanks!

  29. sigmaalgebra

    There was a guy long in operations research at the Colorado School of Mines who kept recommending a book On the German General Staff or some such. I never got the book or understood just what the potential might be or why he kept recommending it, but you have a hint here.

  30. sigmaalgebra

    > You never have a second chance to make a first impression.This concerns me for my alpha test, more for my beta test, and much more for my 1.0 launch.There is lots of advice to rush to alpha test without worry about flaws, bugs, problems, but to me this “first impression” issue remains important.I know; I know; the 1.0 versions of a Ford, IBM 360, and Windows totally sucked, but that first Ford was faster than any horse, the 360 was right away much better than punched cards, and Windows was, well, not just command lines — at least when each of those worked.So, what is the REAL thinking on how good the alpha, beta, 1.0 should be??????

  31. BillMcNeely

    Not really I am afraid. The technology was not what it was it today. Lasers guided munition sound good but require a very expensively trained operator with eyes on the target and good weather conditions to remain locked on target. Once JDAMs came around things got better.… . Also that 30% factored lose of life for potential use of chemical and biological weapons

  32. Lawrence Brass

    Thank you, Girish. Namaste.

  33. sigmaalgebra

    In Gulf War I, we killed lots of Iraqi tanks with F-111s, FLIR, and laser guide bombs.With the air superiority we had A-10s could fly fairly safely and are really good at taking out equipment and people.We DID suit up for chemical attacks. I don’t know about biological, if Iraq had any or if we had defenses.