What Have We Learned from the 100-Year History of Leadership Research? (Part IV)

Dr. Timothy Judge and his team at Fisher Leadership Initiative of the Ohio State University recently conducted a leadership landscape survey on 58 leadership scholars. One of the survey questions asked participants to write down as many as eight findings that they believe we have learned from the 100-year history of leadership research. We will pick some of the most frequently mentioned findings, explain to you what they are and how they helped advance the field of leadership research.


What do you come up with when you think about leadership? Most people focus on what makes a good leader and how leaders influence the group.

Now let’s talk about followers. To the majority, when followers are considered, they are often seen as the end results of the leaders’ influence. Therefore, the importance of followers in a leader-subordinate relationship has been overlooked since the beginning of leadership research. It wasn’t until the beginning of 21st century that leadership scholars started to investigate followers and followership as important elements of the leadership process.

Why are the studies of followers important? If leadership is defined as “the ability to influence self and others to achieve common goals,” there is no leadership if the leaders have no one to cast their influence on.

Without followers, there is no one to help carry out the leaders’ visions and strategies or support their decisions and positions in the organization; the key to effective leadership lays on effective followership. More importantly, followers’ traits, behaviors and attitudes can often affect their leaders’ decisions or behaviors — and eventually shape work outcomes. The studies of followership help us understand: 1) the types of followers that perform the best, 2) how toxic leader behaviors lead to toxic followership and 3) how the interactions between followers and leaders create desirable organizational outcomes.1

So, what makes a good follower? He or she should not simply passively obey whatever the leader commands. Effective followers should be willing to be held accountable, honest and willing to voice their opinions and give honest feedback. It is called courageous followership2. Effective followers should also be self-motivated, solve problems independently and take initiative.

Researchers also identified multiple types of toxic followership: always being bystanders, feeling and doing nothing (detached and cannot be motivated), blindly following whatever the leader is saying, only serving as the leader’s alter ego, etc. Admittedly, some of these types can come from followers’ personal experiences and traits; some, however, can come into being for pragmatic reasons. If a leader doesn’t value honesty, retaliates after receiving critical feedback or only loves to hear praises, why would a follower be honest and challenge the leader’s decision, and why would courageous followers (see above: courageous followership) choose to stay with this type of leader?

Another interesting followership topic is the interaction between leadership and followership and how they can shape each other. If you’ve read Part I of our series on the theory of Leader-Member Exchange (LMX), you may remember that effective work outcomes can come from positive interactive relationships between leaders and their subordinates. Great leadership will result in followers’ trust, understanding and good performance and the positive follower outcomes will in turn lead to further positive leader behaviors.

One origin of good LMX is shared leadership and followership expectations. Such that every leader has his/her own expectation of what makes a good follower, and every follower has an implicit representation of what defines a good leader. Great performance comes when the followers’ styles and expectations match the leaders’ expectations and the organizational context—a person who prefers authoritarian leaders (leaders who use their authority to make others follow) may not work well in an organization where leaders give employees a lot of autonomy.

As a leader, recognizing the types of followers one has can help him or her re-examine one’s own leadership styles and behaviors — along with the organization’s culture and structure. When the followers are behaving or performing poorly, or when a leader realizes that he/she really doesn’t like some specific behaviors and attitudes displayed by the followers, an effective leader should try to find out whether it is some of his/her styles, behaviors or perhaps the rules and policies of the organization that led to these outcomes.

Knowing the most effective followership styles can help leaders encourage their own followers to learn about these behaviors, give them opportunities to practice positive followership styles or select people with these traits to be their followers.


  1. Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R.E., Lowe, K.B., & Carsten, M.K. (2014). Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 83-104.
  2. Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.