Wednesday 07 Jul 2021 Article

The TakeawayBarbara Kellerman's Followership Model

Managing Change in a Changing World

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Part 1 of 2 Lewin's Force Field Analysis

Part 2 of 2 Barbara Kellerman's Followership Model

Barbara Kellerman's Followership Model

One of the most prevalent challenges leaders across the world are currently facing is understanding how the dynamics of leadership have changed and, based on this, how to keep leadership relevant in today’s changing world.

When creating or changing their leadership strategy, one of the main things that leaders often forget to consider is their followers’ individual personalities; it’s long overdue for leaders to acknowledge the importance of understanding their followers better.

How Have Leader-follower Relationships Changed?

Concerningly, leadership in many organisations is still built on the idea that leaders matter a great deal more than followers. This ideology is extremely outdated; while followers may lack authority and superiority, they certainly don’t lack power, influence and importance.

In this new world, leaders are expected to treat followers as valuable cogs of the organisation. To do this, leaders need to adopt a more open-minded and expansive view of leadership and their relationships with followers, as well as a better understanding of who their followers are as individuals.

Barbara Kellerman’s followership model makes it easy to categorise followers into one of 5 categories…

5 people

What is Barbara Kellerman’s Followership Model?

Whilst research into followership (defined as “the willingness to collaborate with others to accomplish defined & shared goals, typically under some form of leadership”) is limited, many professionals agree that it’s important for leaders to better understand their followers.

Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik, Carnegie Mellon adjunct professor Robert Kelley, and executive coach Ira Chaleff all argue that having even some understanding of what drives and motivates their followers can have a positive impact on leaders themselves, their followers, and their entire organisation.

Barbara Kellerman’s Followership Model “explores the evolving dynamic between leaders and followers and offers a new typology for determining and appreciating the differences among subordinates”. The typology distinguishes types of followers based on one, all-important metric - engagement. Followers are categorised based on where they fall on the continuum from “feeling and doing absolutely nothing” to “being passionately committed and deeply involved”. Kellerman says that she chose to use engagement as her metric because “regardless of context, it’s the follower’s degree of involvement that largely determines the nature of the superior-subordinate relationship. A typology based on a single, simple metric — as opposed to the multiple rating factors used by the creators of previous segmenting tools — offers leaders immediate information on whether and to what degree their followers are buying what they’re selling”.

Kellerman’s model identifies 5 types of followers:

1. Isolates

According to Kellerman, isolates are completely detached from and scarcely aware of what’s going on around them. They are most commonly found in larger organisations where they can fly under the radar easily as their lack of enthusiasm, innovation and hard work attracts little to no attention from leadership. To mitigate the negative impact that isolates could have on the team and organisation, leaders need to ask themselves:

  • Do we have any isolates?
  • If so, why are they so detached?
  • How can we re-engage them?

Depending on the root cause of isolates’ disengagement, leaders need to identify actionable steps that can be taken to resolve this. For example, if it’s a matter of feeling static in their role and they feel like there is no chance to challenge themselves and progress, putting a development or training plan in place could be the answer.



2. Bystanders

Unlike isolates, bystanders are aware of what’s going on around them and they do observe but they actively choose not to participate. They passively go along with leaders when it is in their self-interest to do so, but they don’t take the time or make the effort to get involved. Bystanders, who are quiet but productive, are often favoured by managers who just want their followers to do as they’re told. However, true leaders want their followers to be inspired and motivated to go above and beyond and to care about the organisation’s mission, vision and values. Similarly to Isolates, the secret to motivating bystanders is to identify the causes of their disengagement and then offering intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to try and boost their engagement.

3. Participants

On the other hand, participants are engaged to an extent; they care enough to invest some time or effort into what they are doing rather than doing the bare minimum. When participants agree with leaders’ plans, aims and intentions, they can be true drivers of productivity to help the organisation or department meet, but not exceed, its goals. Participants often require some motivation from leaders to get them engaged with their work. This motivation and engagement could be achieved through:

  • A team day to realign followers to the organisation’s mission and encourage collaboration
  • Frequent constructive feedback to encourage continuous improvement
  • Or simply reminding employees why their work is valuable and how it contributes to the organisation’s overarching goals

2 people with clipboards

4. Activists

Activists are typically very opinionated, strong-headed, and feel strongly (either in favour of or against) their leaders; they then act according to their feelings. Followers that fall into this category are usually eager, self-motivated and highly engaged. On one hand, activists can really support their leaders and help drive strategic plans forward. On the other hand, if their opinions juxtapose leaders’ views, there is a risk that activists will work hard to undermine leaders. Activists are usually easy to spot as there’s very few of them; their level of commitment demands a lot of time and effort that most people would struggle to sustain long term. As a leader, it’s important to ensure that activists are on your side and share your values, priorities and viewpoints.

5. Diehards

Kellerman defines diehards as followers who “are prepared to go down for their cause”. By definition, they are willing to endanger their own health and welfare in the service of their cause - much like soldiers risk their lives in commitment to protecting and defending their country. Diehards are also present in less extreme situations; one example of diehard followers in an office environment is whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are dedicated to doing what they perceive to be ‘the right thing’, despite the judgement they may receive from colleagues for their unfavourable behaviour. Diehards’ all-encompassing commitment to their cause can work greatly in favour of leaders as diehards can be relied on to always get the job done.

What Are the Potential Consequences of Failing to Understand Your Followers?

Failing to understand your followers and where they fall on Kellerman’s engagement continuum can have a negative impact on many aspects of organisations, including:

  • Forming and maintaining relationships
  • Motivating followers
  • Collaborating on projects

However, one of the main areas of leadership that could be impacted by a lack of understanding of your followers is change management. To be able to effectively manage change, you need to understand your staff’s individual needs to be able to fully support them through change. 

If managing change is something that you or your organisation’s leaders struggle with, we are hosting a free Managing Change webinar on Thursday 8th July 2021, at 10:30am.

Using a well-known model, this webinar will help you understand the emotional impact of change which explains why some people resist change. Moreover, you will learn how to effectively support your staff through the different stages along the 'Change Curve' and ensure that the resistance is being overcome and that the change becomes easier to implement.

If this is something that you would be interested in learning more about, you can sign up for this webinar by clicking here or following the link below.


We hope that you have enjoyed our Managing Change in a Changing World series and that you can take some value from the webinar.

Until next time...

[Free Webinar] Sign up for our free 'Managing Change and Overcoming Resistance with the Change Curve Model' webinar!

This webinar is ideal for anyone who is new to managing people through change and wants to learn how to overcome resistance.

Sign up for free!

Missed an article? More from Managing Change in a Changing World

Part 1 of 2 Lewin's Force Field Analysis

Part 2 of 2 Barbara Kellerman's Followership Model

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