The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2017
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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.

Defining Followers

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

and grumble.

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-

ful consideration.

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