THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
someone else. Indeed, we spend most of our professional time
following, not leading.
So we ignore followership at our peril. We need to better under-
stand it, not simply because it essentially complements leadership.
As I will demonstrate, followership is also the critical skill needed
for the most challenging Foreign Service assignments.
What kind of followers are we talking about here? Sheep? Paper
shufflers? Robots? Absolutely not! This is the critical point: the
difference between good and bad followership. Good followers
work both independently and collaboratively. They needminimal
supervision. They take initiative; they create. Most importantly,
they display courage. They know how and when to speak up, give
bad news, make suggestions and dissent when needed.
In 1988, management scientist Robert Kelley rebelled against
the leadership culture with an article, “In Praise of Followers.” In
his 1992 book,
The Power of Followership,
Kelley posits a model
that groups followers into four categories based on their level of
independence, critical thinking, and activity or passivity.
A dependent and passive follower is one who relies on leaders
to think for them and who requires close direction. Kelley calls
them “sheep.”The active version of this (active, but still dependent)
is the conformist follower, or “yes person.”These two groups are
usually associated with the term “follower.”The third category is
the alienated follower. These are the individuals who are indepen-
dent, but passive. On a good day, they are the skeptics in our midst;
on a bad one, they are called cynics. But in a bureaucracy, they are
the ultimate survivors, because they do not oppose. They follow
Kelley’s ideal is the independent, active follower, which he calls
the exemplary or “star” follower. Exemplary followers possess four
qualities: 1) they manage themselves well; 2) they are committed
to the organization and its goals; 3) they build their competen-
cies; and 4) they are “courageous, honest and credible.” In Foreign
Service language, they are constructive dissenters when the situa-
tion calls for it; otherwise, they are just straight-shooters. This goes
beyond “managing up,” which refers to one’s relationship with a
superior. Followership, by contrast, requires commitment to the
organization’s broader values and goals in the absence of clear
direction, or when specific directions from a supervisor conflict
with those larger values and goals.
Kelley goes on to make another startling assertion based on
his research: Self-managed teams work best. Too many leaders
can lead to chaos, but the absence of leaders often produces
excellent results—provided the team has the right members,
who are guided by the mission, not other persons.
The concept of followership didn’t die with the 1990s. It has
recently found a new expression in literature (e.g.,
by Frederic Laloux) andmanagement (e.g., the hol-
acracy system embraced by the online shoe store Zappos, which
recently eliminated its middle management in favor of “self-orga-
nization”). Maybe the U.S. government isn’t yet ready to embrace
the Zappos model, but the idea of followership still deserves care-
Followership and USAID’s Mission
The concept of followership is relevant to all organizations and
sectors, but it matters especially in the field of international devel-
opment and is therefore of particular interest tomembers of the
Foreign Service at USAID.
Consider where the field stands today. Since 1990, the world
has made dramatic strides in reducing poverty, improving health,
reducing violent conflict and expanding democracy. But about 50
to 60 states are considered “fragile.”These are societies with low
levels of legitimacy and effectiveness, and high levels of instabil-
ity and violence. While different agencies maintain their own lists,
using different methodologies, they tend to agree that places such
as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Somalia and
Yemen are highly fragile and unstable, with high levels of poverty.
In addition, many transnational problems, frommigration and
disease to terrorism, find their breeding grounds in these fragile
states. From the standpoint of development, these countries have
been largely left out of the progress of the past three decades, or
earlier progress has been violently reversed. While these are not
the only places that demand our attention as development profes-
sionals, they certainly will consume much of it.
Yet Foreign Service jobs in such difficult, often dangerous
places are usually the hardest to fill. Some, like Afghanistan and
Iraq, are unaccompanied posts (Critical Priority Countries in
Maybe the U.S. government
isn’t yet ready to embrace
the Zappos model, but
the idea of followership
still deserves careful