Who You Influence: Five Types of Followers

Sam Rainer

January 25, 2013

Either people are on board with your leadership or not, right? Nope.

There are degrees of influence and different types of followers. The mantra of “get on board or get off” does not take into account the numerous types of followers and differing levels of leadership influence.

Most definitions of leadership allude to influence as the key driver. But I do not believe leadership and influence are synonymous—leader and follower exchanges are more complex than mere influence. However, leaders do influence followers. And the influencing process is made complex because followers are not a monolithic group.

Knowing how to influence begins with an understanding of who is following you. In her work, Followership, Barbara Kellerman identifies five types of followers based upon their level of engagement with the leader.

The isolate is completely detached. No influence exists between leader and follower. A formal relationship of power may be in place, such as between a congressman and constituent, but an isolate does not know or care about the leader.

The bystander observes the leader but does not participate in any interaction. These followers make a decision to stand on the sidelines. A small amount of influence occurs in this type of relationship. The bystander’s decision to withdraw, however, points to a position of neutrality about the leader.

The participant is more engaged and clearly favors or disfavors the leader. These followers are willing to invest time and resources in support or opposition of the current leadership.

The activist has strong emotional feelings about the leader. They act on these emotions and work hard to support the leader (or to undermine the leader). These followers are highly engaged with leadership and are often closely connected to many of the activities in which leaders are involved.

The diehard is the most engaged with leaders. These followers are willing to die for the cause of their leaders, often exhibiting deep devotion. Conversely, diehards who oppose the leader would die in order to remove the leader. A diehard forms an all-consuming identity around the leader and his or her causes.

As a leader, I would like to think most of my followers are supportive diehards. But it’s not the case. Most likely, it is not the case in your leadership role either. Understanding the types of followers (and who is in each camp) is critical to knowing how to influence. Believing people are simply on board or not will cause you to place too much distance between bystanders and participants. Focusing too much time on supportive or opposing diehards causes a leader to lose sight of the masses. Good leaders understand that knowing how to influence includes understanding the complexities of who to influence.

2 comments on “Who You Influence: Five Types of Followers”

  1. wccalvert says:

    Surely there is room in this taxonomy for other types:

    FELLOW TRAVELERS are going your way, and are happy to work with you. They are not devoted at all to the leader, but have some goals in common and may accept quite a lot of influence from the leader on issues of well-defined shared concern.

    CAUSE FOLLOWERS may have any of the kinds of following profiles described so far, but they have them for the cause, not the leader. They will commit to the leader gradually as they judge the leader to be in line with the cause, and will periodically reassess.

    These describe stable states a person can inhabit, in which they would appear to jump back and forth among nearly all of the five listed above.

    The key difference of these two is that the leader is not the key element for them, and so their commitments for or against the leader is not a sensible category for classifying them. This, too, has to be an important point of leadership: many people either do not or do not stably follow a leader. They follow something else, and have important interactions with leaders in the process.

    I once could have been called one of these myself when I was a member of a church with whose leadership I had deep divides. I was a Christian, and it was my church, and they were its leaders. I went back and forth between ignoring them, investing deeply in their program, and opposing them, sometimes in the course of a single day.

    Seeing people in these profiles as “participants,” “bystanders,” or “activists” flattens their experience and makes it harder to understand them. It also very possibly undervalues them.

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Wesley – Great points, and I agree there is room for more types of followers. And you’re correct about followers and causes. Leaders are important, but we do not give followers enough attention, in my opinion.

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