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You are here: Home White Papers Leader-Follower Theory

Leader-Follower Theory

Leader-Follower Theory: Meaning and Impact

By Malcolm J. Stubblefield
Jaunuary 2010

As we consider the impact of leader-follower theory – the methods used by leaders and followers to interact be it through leader-member exchange theory (Phillips & Bedeian, 1994), adaptive change theory (Heifetz & Laurie, 2001), or social identity theory (Hogg, 2001), two import components must be present and continuously massaged by both the leader and his/her followership, they are: effective communication linkages and relationship building.  When these components are frayed (or nonexistent) the effectiveness of leader-follower exchange is considerably diminished which can negatively impact management and the environment (Kellerman, 2007).  That said, I turn now to addressing the meaning and impact of leader-follower theory as it relates to management and/or workplace environment.

Heifetz & Laurie (2001) offer an interesting perspective for leader-follower interchange relating to radical factors that present themselves in the course of daily routines.  Through the theory of adaptive change the leader encourages (coerces) followers to face hard realities – ‘adaptive challenges’ – that are presented within their work environments. The leader encourages followers to “develop new strategies and learn new ways of operating” (p. 132).  

As problems are resolved and decisions made to address circumstances that are ever present within the organizational environment, the methods used to reach solvable conclusions or develop a plan of attack are critical.  From a metaphorical perspective, getting a bird’s eye view of the organization and the issues that must be confronted has its advantages.  As Heifetz & Laurie (2001) put forth, “leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony” (p. 132). From this vantage point, the leader is in a better position to communicate and provide the followership guidance as they (followers) set about addressing and finding their own solutions to critical problems.  Indeed, when followers are empowered to formulate, regulate, and initiate adaptive change, buy-in that influences an effective leader-follower exchange is more abundant then when the leader alone is relegated to offer a solution.  It is this writer’s opinion that leaders who use of adaptive change theory forge a leader-follower relationship that is positively influenced though the incorporation of effective communication and relationship building competencies

Still another perspective of the leader-follow theory presents evidence that leaders exist because of followers and followers exit because of leaders (Hogg, 2001). Hence, social identity theory goes to the heart of relationship building and effective communication linkages that must exist between leaders-followers and followers-followers.  As followers become integrated in groups they form group identities, a sense of competitiveness towards other groups, and the need to actively influence desired outcomes. As they gain influence and staying power group members establish agendas, achieve collective goals, and gain group power.  Thus the group establishes its own leadership prowess that can be used to challenge or support their respective leader. The dynamics of the group’s social identity when applied to the leader-follower relationship can help or hinder a leader’s decision-making capabilities. 

An interesting corollary is established through the work of Kellerman (2007), who categorizes followers as isolates, bystanders, participants, activists, and diehards (p. 87).  Isolates are individuals who are completely detached; they could care less about the organization, their peers, or their leader.  Their involvement in the organization is strictly self-fulfilling – the receipt of a paycheck. Bystanders pay attention but do little in the form of involvement: they stand on the sideline and observe. They are a step up from the isolates and provide little if any support to the leader or the organization. Participants can be counted on to demonstrate measurable support or alienation towards the leader or the organization. They too fall into the self-serving category. Activists express their feelings about their leader and organization in both a positive or negative manner.  They hold true to their beliefs and convictions.  That said, “They work hard either on behalf of their leaders or to undermine and even unseat them” (p. 89).  And finally, diehards will stick to the cause that they believe in. They can be a leader’s best asset or worse nightmare.  Within the organization they rank as the minority within the work force, but can be a force to be reckoned with. 

The impact leader-follower theory has on management and the workplace environment is far reaching. The personality of the leader and, likewise the personalities of followers, set the stage for meaning dialogue and desired outcomes.  How this dyadic relationship matures is predicated on effective communication and relationship building.  As stated earlier in this paper without these two components the leader, followers, and the organization suffer.



Heifetz, R., & Laurie, D. (2001). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 79 (11), 131-141.


Hogg, M. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 5 (3), 184-201.


Kellerman, B. (2007). What every leader needs to know about followers. Harvard Business Review, 85 (12), 84-91.