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Career Strategies for Librarians
Learning to Lead: the Power of Followership
by Teri R. Switzer

The practice of leaders and followers working together to create a concept called shared leadership has
been discussed in organizational development and management theory for several years.  However, it is
just now being noticed in the library setting.  Libraries are at a critical stage and, unfortunately, are
doomed to remain where they are unless they take a good look at leadership models and actively involve
junior librarians when addressing the changes that are taking place.  The model presented below is not
so much a model on leadership as it is a model on followership.   It is important, though, to first take a
quick look at what constitutes leadership and what constitutes followership.

What is Leadership?

Leadership is an influence relationship based on a collective action that affects change (Glazer, 1995).  
Even though it’s a journey that two or more people embark on, it’s not solely about being a leader.  
Rather, it is the skill involved in being able to trust ourselves and others.  According to Bennis (1992) it is
first being, then doing.  Perhaps, though, Senge (1990, p.45) sums up what leadership is when he
states, “. . .we are coming to believe that leaders are those people who walk ahead, people who are
genuinely committed to deep change in themselves and in the or organizations.  They lead through
developing new skills, capabilities, and understandings. And they come from many places within the
organization.”  What a poignant statement this is,   “. . .they come from many places within the
organization.”  The empowerment of others is a leadership concept that sends a powerful message, a
message that stresses the importance of effective and courageous followership.  Glazer (1995)
maintains that leadership is a relationship, a dynamic interaction between people who are trying to
make substantive changes.  These changes are ones that should reflect the shared vision of all those
involved.

What is Followership?

The term followership tends to have a negative and passive connotation.  However, when paired with the
adjective powerful it seems to become more active and positive.  Followership can be powerful and it is
through a dynamic model of followership that leaders can fully realize their potential and the potential of
the organization.  

As the “new kid on the block,” many junior librarians think they are relegated to a more subservient role,
one that consists primarily of learning from others while practicing their newly obtained reference,
instruction, or cataloging skills.  However, there is much more to a junior librarians’ career than that.  The
new MLS professional plays a vital role in the shaping of the library.  To become a shaper in the
organization, there are five dimensions that should be observed.  These are: assuming responsibility,
serving, challenging, and participating.

Assuming Responsibility

Drucker (1988) remarked that all organizations are made of people with different skills and knowledge of
doing different kinds of work.  Therefore, it is imperative that the organization be built on communication
and individual responsibility.  As a follower with power, it is necessary to take responsibility for both your
actions and the process of becoming an independent, critical thinker.  You should no longer be satisfied
simply sitting and listening.  Instead, you need to become engaged in what is taking place in your
library.  You need to think about what is being said.  

Becoming more involved and taking on responsibility means asking yourself questions such as what
are all the pieces that make up your library organization, where do you and your department fit, and what
are the library’s goals? In other words, part of the responsibility of being an engaged, powerful follower
is wanting to know where everything fits within your library organization, and taking the initiative to seek
the answers and become involved.   

How do you find the answers to these questions?  First, you need to read the library’s strategic plan for
the coming year(s).  Second, you should read through the library’s mission and vision statements.  
Analyze these and visualize where you and your work unit fit.  Talk with your department head, and
encourage discussion about the mission and vision statements at department meetings.  What do
these mean to you and your colleagues?  

Senge’s (1990) work on the learning organization focuses largely on developing an organization where
everyone is involved and actively working on a vision that is understood and accepted by the
organization, including its administrators, librarians, and support staff.  There is a horizontal
accountability for the vision as well as for everyday tasks.  However, to become completely involved in the
organization, you have to take your role seriously.  You have to assume responsibility for participating
and being actively engaged in the planning and the implementation processes.

Serving the Organization

Being a good servant is something most librarians are familiar with.  In this context, though, serving is
associated with assuming responsibility and becomes a dynamic word.  Greenleaf (1998) explores the
philosophy of servants and sees them as those people who administer to others.  In turn, it is through
this action that they become wiser and more knowledgeable about their organization and what it takes to
make it successful.  

It is hard work being a good servant, and the responsibilities are numerous.  Good servants are as
passionate about the organization as the upper administration.  They look for where they can fit in and
how they can make a difference.  They want to use their strengths to better the organization (Chaleff,
1995).

Challenging the Organization

Followers who are willing to take responsibility and serve the organization in the best manner in which
they can should also be willing to stand up for their beliefs, to risk rejection, and to confront conflict when
appropriate.  Organizational harmony should be valued, but so should integrity and personal beliefs
(Chaleff, 1995).  Senge (1990) takes a firm stance on structural conflict and dealing with conflict and
defensive actions.  He believes that organizational conflict can be beneficial and productive.  Even
though everyone shares in a common vision, there will be differing ideas on how to accomplish that
vision.  Creative thinking can come out of these free-flowing ideas.  However, conflict turns harmful when
it becomes defensive.  Defensive routines block energy and stifle creative thinking.  Ultimately, collective
learning becomes stifled.  

As a follower who is willing to challenge, you need to keep these points in mind:

1) Keep an open mind and don’t become defensive; 2) Recognize when you become uncomfortable in a
situation.  Instead of tuning out, look into yourself and seek out why you may feel threatened and/or
uncomfortable; 3) Let your feelings be known.  Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m uneasy about this, and there
might be others who feel the same way. Can you help me make sense of this?”  Remember the
philosophy of horizontal accountability; 4) Pick your battles wisely. Not everything is worth questioning or
challenging.; and 5) Inquire and reflect.

As Senge (1990, p. 256) states, “In the presence of a genuinely shared vision, defensive routines
become just another aspect of ‘current reality.’”

Participating in Change

Change can be difficult, even traumatic.  Generally, it’s much easier simply to let things continue in the
status quo.  However, the whole concept of powerful followership is about managerial change, and if
done with thought and skills, it can transform a mediocre organization into an influential, forward-looking
one.  

For several years libraries were rather static.  However, once non-print resources hit the scene in the
mid 1970s, libraries have not had an opportunity to sit back and retain the status quo.  Most of the
change that libraries have experienced in the past thirty years has been technology centered.  In all
honesty, some leaders and followers struggle to keep up with the demands technological advances
have put on libraries.  Yet, we now have a better grasp on the issues and are better able to become
more visionary and concentrate on instructional and informational technology strategic plans.   

As a follower, what should your role be and how can you become a catalyst for change?  Having taken
responsibility for knowing where your library is heading and knowing how you fit into that process, you
should be in a better position to look at what’s occurring in the community, the nation, and your library
and analyze what impact you could have on your organization.  What ideas do you see for your library and
your unit?  These needn’t be extensive or transformational, but they should focus on your unit or on your
individual position.  Talk about your ideas with your colleagues and your department head.  Bring them
up at department meetings and use them to initiate further discussion.  Your ideas may just be the
spring board for others.    

conclusion

Effective leadership is accomplished by leaders and followers working together.  The postindustrial
leadership paradigm is characterized by power-sharing and collaboration (Brungardt, 1998).  As a
powerful follower, junior librarians are able to create a profound effect on the organization.  The
followership role is important and being able to see how your goals fit within the larger context is a key to
effective followership.  The model presented here is one way in which junior librarians can take on a pro-
active role in the library, while learning the tools to become an effective leader in the future.  Leadership
and followership are constantly evolving notions.  Consensus, collaboration, and cooperation, rather
than conflict, should permeate today’s library.  Take advantage of developing new skills and obtaining
the knowledge needed to become an effective leader by first being a powerful follower.  Challenge
yourself and your thinking.  Become involved and learn more about how you fit into the library
organization.  Become part of the change that is taking place.  Participate and contribute your values and
insights, and remember when you become a leader that your followers are a key to your own success.

references  

Bennis, W.G. On Becoming a Leader. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1992.

Brungardt, C.L. “The New Face of Leadership: Implications for Training Educational Leaders,” On the
Horizon, 1998, 6(1):7-8.

Chaleff, Ira. The Courageous Follower: Stand Up To and For Our Leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-
Koehler, 1995.

Drucker, Peter. “Management and the World’s Work,” Harvard Business Review, September-October
1988

Glazer, Jeffrey W.  “The Call for Leadership,” The Journal of Leadership Studies, 2(4):111-121.

Greenleaf, Robert.  In: Insights on Leadership: Service, Stewardship, Spirit, and Servant Leadership,
edited by Larry Spears. New York: Wiley, 1998.

Senge, Peter.  The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Senge, Peter. “Leading Learning Organizations: The Bold, the Powerful, and the Invisible,” In F.
Hesselbein, M. Goldsmith, and R. Beckhard (eds) The Leader of the Future. San Francisco: Jossey-
Bass, 1996.  

Abo ut the Author:  

Teri R. Switzer is Assistant Director for Human Resources and Budget at Auraria Library of the University
of Colorado-Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.  
Article submitted Apr 2002

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