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The relationship between leadership and followership

Flin, O’Connor and Crichton (2008) describe followership as ‘leadership influence on subordinates’, noting that leadership is not something a leader possesses, so much as a process involving followership and, finally, that without followers there is no leadership or leaders.

In many respects this resonates with the apparent transformational leadership style of the second of the fire officers referred to earlier by Chief Alan Brunacini as being someone worthy of following. It is strongly linked to the ‘leader as hero’ and ‘charismatic leader’ perspectives, something often seen in the world of emergency management.

And yet we see many examples of poor leadership decisions by these charismatic and heroic leaders that could have been checked by their followers. A classic example of this is the Tenerife air disaster of 1977 when the aircrew failed to challenge the captain who had made the wrong decision to proceed with take-off; the resulting collision cost the lives of 583 people.

Followership skills should be supportive of the leadership. However, Grint (2010) suggests that followership can also be censorious, a checking mechanism, and protection against ‘bad’ leadership.

This is evident in risk management situations where, in a number of disciplines, subordinates are now mandated to challenge the leader’s decisions if they think they are wrong. Crew resource management in the airline world and the ‘Stop-Fire’ systems in the British military are good examples.

It would appear, therefore, that leadership and followership are inextricably linked and nowhere more so than in the risk incident environment.

In risk management terms, followership equates to:

  • supporting the leadership
  • positive teamwork
  • commitment to the task
  • ensuring shared situational awareness
  • being aware of the leader’s situation
  • emotional intelligence
  • willingness to challenge the leadership in an appropriate, supportive and timely manner
  • effective communication

Your task

Thinking back to your chosen leader, what type of leader were they and how do you think their followers related to them?


Flin, R. H., O’Connor, P., and Crichton, M. (2008) Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non- Technical Skills. Aldershot: Ashgate

Grint, K. (2010) ‘Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: The Role of Leadership’. in The New Public Leadership Challenge. Springer, 169-186

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

Coventry University