Leadership : What Followers Want From Their Leaders

Richard Pfohl has worked with various Fortune 500 high-tech, insurance, telecommunications, software, utilities and government organizations. He has been involved with various organizations which promote leadership like CBMC and Vision New England. Presently, Richard is the Leader of the Hartford chapter of CBMC. He is also enrolled in the Doctor of Strategic Leadership Program at Regent University School of Leadership Studies, Virginia Beach, Virginia. He can be contacted via rick.pfohl@gmail.com



Leaders cannot exist without followers, nor can followers exist without leaders. Heller and Van Til agree “leadership and followership are linked concepts.” This means neither can happen without the other. The compliance of the followers is the mirror image of successful leadership. At the same time, successful leadership is a product of increased follower efficiency and effectiveness through their leadership influence. Leaders can influence their followers but not without follower compliance. Leaders who understand what their followers want are successful leaders and gain the compliance of their followers. Maslow helps leaders understand this connection with followers through his Hierarchy of needs. Maslow focused more on the whole person of the follower and leader and saw them as people with “values” and people who make “choices.” Leaders who look for this connection are not only successful but understand the needs and wants of their followers. Leaders cannot change the “values” of followers but they can understand them. Leaders cannot force the “choices” of followers but they can guide them.


At this present time two forces, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen, are changing the circumstances under which leaders lead. These forces are “interdependence and diversity.” Interdependence is mostly related to technology and how we are connected at anytime, anywhere to anyone. Interdependence drives us towards collaboration but also creates more complications due to the requirements of this global collaboration. Followers have more choices to make and need more guidance rather than distance from their leaders. This creates more complexity because leaders have a wider span of control today than they did in the past due to technological advances. This translates into less quality time spent with their followers and potentially more disconnects created within the leader-follower relationship.


The other force affecting the leader-follower connection is diversity. Diversity is related to the character of individuals, groups and organizations. It deals with the need for identity and without this understanding leaders further complicate their ability to be successful in their relationship with their followers. Diversity focuses on the unique individual or follower and highlights their differences and potentially conflicting agendas. This creates another complexity for the leader-follower relationship but demonstrates the importance of a leader’s involvement in their understanding of their followers wants and needs. This is the nature of the “new” follower which will need a “new” leader. Understanding what these new followers want becomes a new challenge for leaders if they want to create this connection and remain effective in their leadership.

The Changing Nature of a Follower and the Leader’s Challenge

Our followers are part of a global uncertainty and search for meaning which is translating back into their organizational performance. In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner state, “from heightening uncertainty across the world to an intense search for meaning, our connections as people and as leaders are part of this context.” According to Kouzes and Posner the “content” of leadership has not changed but the “context” has. They mention the heightened uncertainty and search for meaning within this changing context is evident in the rapid pace of our new economy which includes; globalization, continuous connectivity, knowledge capital, instant gratification and access, and a new social contract.


Our followers are changing, within this context, and leaders need to seize the opportunity to lead differently. Leading differently means understanding how to approach the changing context affecting our followers. Our followers are more diverse and our connections are being made within a global context. According to Jay Galbraith in Designing Organizations a leaders span of control is increasing so spans of seventeen or even twenty become possible. Technology makes this span of control possible through collaboration but what is the cost? As our followers are changing the job of the leader is becoming more difficult as connections become more difficult to maintain. 

Followers Have Needs Too

How can leaders connect with followers? Where do they begin? If leaders focus only on the physical presence of the follower they will disregard the emotional and physical. By definition a focus on the physical is a focus on “anything relating to the body” which is also anything that is distinguished from “the mind or spirit.” If the follower is only a physically being then a leader would be able to motivate simply by focusing on the physical aspects of the follower. Abraham Maslow focused on the “whole person” and this person has “values” and makes “choices.” Maslow saw motivation moving beyond a focus on followers as physical beings. This is certainly not revolutionary because in the bible we see where Jesus came to shows us the spiritual realm and redirect our focus on “things which are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:18). Leaders need to see their followers as more than a warm physical body. Followers are organizational contributors who are instrumental in the leader’s success. Their contribution is contingent upon the fulfillment of their needs.


In The Art of Followership Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones states followers are looking for authenticity, significance and community from their leaders. Many leadership theories focus on leadership as a role you do to followers. Goffee and Jones see leadership as a role you do with your followers. It is a relationship and it does not happen without a leader’s recognition of their followers needs. All great leaders must at some time occupy the position of a follower. Aristotle stated “all great leaders must first learn to follow.” Peter Drucker tells us the “defining characteristic of leaders is followers.” So before a leader can lead they must first realize what it is like to follow. When they follow they will look for these qualities from their leaders and will understand the needs of their followers when it comes time to lead. This will make them better leaders as they have been in the position of the follower. This association will improve the connection between the leader and the follower because they will have walked in their shoes.


In Leading and Empowering Diverse Followers Lynn Offerman states “diversity issues are critical to understanding the dynamics of leadership and followership.” She goes on to say, “as organizations change and become more demographically and internationally diverse, and as relationships between individuals within and across organizations become ever more critical in the realization of organizational success, diversity of followership becomes increasingly important as a leadership issue.” In the leader’s quest to connect with their followers diversity is at the heart of their understanding. What connections are necessary to address the diversity between leaders and followers? What can leaders do to make these connections?

Connected Leadership

How do leaders begin to cultivate this connection? With followers who are more diverse how do leaders stay connected to their changing followers? With the increasing complexity placed on leaders how do they maintain a connection to followers?


The Center for Creative leadership sees this topic as so important they have created a practice around it. They state this practice, “views leadership as an inclusive and collective activity shared by many, if not all, organizational members. This means that leadership development addresses not just individuals but the links between individuals and the systems and cultures in which they work.” The Connected Leadership approach helps organizations “transform their leadership culture and leadership practices in the direction of greater collaboration, engagement across boundaries, dialogue and learning, embracing differences, and the direct involvement of people at all levels of the organization in leadership work.” As leaders become influenced by the forces of interdependence and diversity followers are looking for leaders to become more connected. Connected leaders enable their followers with better collaboration, visibility across organizational boundaries, different ways of promoting dialogue, a perception of their differences and an understanding of how followers can be more involved.


The Hay Group, a global management consultant company, believes the topic of connected leadership to be so important they have begun studies of this within schools in the United Kingdom. In their research they find similarities between successful organizations and educational institutions as the ability to share ideas rapidly and effectively throughout the organization and the encouragement of followers to become leaders. Unfortunately the traditional notions of leadership do not promote these ideas because they necessitate connected relationships through connected leadership.


At a recent CCL [Center for Creative Leadership] conference one of the speakers stated, “sound leadership strategies connect leadership and create and mobilize richly interconnected networks of people doing purposeful, targeted, and strategic work together….” As mentioned earlier leadership and followership are linked [connected] concepts. Leadership cannot happen without followers but followers cannot become mobilized without connected leadership. Connected leadership is about knowing the right strategy, connecting with followers and then mobilizing them to achieve the organizational vision.

Erasing the Distance and Becoming Connected

In order to erase the distance being created through this increasing gap of connection between leaders and followers leaders need to get to know their followers. Spending time with followers is now more crucial today than it was when leaders had a span of control of five to seven employees. It is more difficult to know their followers on the levels their followers need for their own continued productivity. It is even more difficult for leaders to maintain this relationship for their own needs to keep the organization efficient and effective. Both leaders and followers need different things from each other. Leaders need to achieve their objectives and followers need to understand how they fit within these objectives. The leaders’ needs happen through the followers. The followers’ needs happen through their leaders. They need each other to fulfill their needs.


What are some things leaders can do to erase the distance in this relationship and become connected with their followers? As previously mentioned followers are looking for authenticity, significance and community from their leaders. Most likely followers have values which are different from their leaders. Understanding these values and how a leader can relate to them would help create a connection of significance within this relationship. Aubrey Malphurs In Being Leaders states, “wise leaders understand that their effectiveness as a leader of an organization ….. depends to a great degree on values alignment.” Then he states, “studies of person-organization fit show that people who share an organization’s values are more likely to contribute to the organization in constructive ways.” Understanding a follower’s values and then relating to these values could erase the distance between leaders and followers and help them become connected.  


Leaders often alienate their followers through their leadership style. Looking to understand their leadership style as in Situational Leadership by Hersey and Blanchard could also erase the distance created within this relationship. An understanding of the leader’s style and how it affects their followers performance would demonstrate the leader is aware of where the follower stands developmentally. This could erase some distance and create a connection of authenticity as the two work together to grow in their knowledge and understanding.


With today’s organizations faster pace, higher demands, multiple simultaneous requests and larger spans of control a leaders time is minimal. This leaves little to no room for building personal relationships but followers are looking for a sense of community from their leaders. In The Leadership Challenge Kouzes and Posner state this is where the follower needs a sense of importance. Followers want to know “they—and you—are in this together” so they can feel that what they are doing is important and “all of our contributions make a difference.” By not doing this leaders create alienation and followers lose their sense of community.


By focusing on followers needs of authenticity, significance and community leaders can make strides in erasing the distance created through interdependence and diversity. A focus on these needs will reconnect leaders to their followers and place them on the path of a healthy growing relationship. The health of this relationship is a key contributor to the optimal efficiency and effectiveness of an organization.

Copyright 2007 - Richard Pfohl

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