Sheeple – a combination of ‘sheep’ and ‘people’ – was a recent remark made by someone on this blog in reference to employees. It describes those who blindly follow others without engaging their own independent thinking, although this was the first time I’d seen it referred to in a corporate sense.
Perhaps he was confusing it with groupthink, the notion that creativity and intellect are sacrificed for the purposes of team harmony. An important distinction is that groupthink reflects the interactions among team members. The term ‘sheeple’, on the other hand, is more about loyally following an individual. For sheeple to exist, they need a shepherd.
It’s a concept otherwise known as followership. In academic literature, there’s a tremendous emphasis on leadership and only a tiny focus on followership, which is odd. A leader’s job is always made easier when supported by good followers.
In her book, Followership: how followers are creating change and changing leaders, Harvard lecturer Dr Barbara Kellerman eloquently writes about the disparaging way in which followers are regarded.
She cites an advertisement by Audi that used “Never Follow” as the tagline, making the implicit point that to follow is a bad thing. She also refers to Tony Blair’s announcement upon stepping down as prime minister when he declared: “Britain is not a follower. It is a leader”. Again, implying it’s tragic to follow.
This pervasive view that it’s an insult to brand someone a follower is perpetuated by frameworks like the Curphy-Roellig Followership Model, which compartmentalises employees into a range of categories:
- Self-starters eagerly pursue success, embrace change, demand feedback, generate ideas, and crave challenging work.
- Brown-nosers are submissive, keen to please, uncritical, petrified of failure, and keen to obey.
- Slackers are lazy, unproductive, disengaged, and try to get away with doing as little as possible.
- Criticisers are pessimistic and prone to constant complaining and fault-spotting, frequently trying to convert others to The Dark Side.
Of course, the self-starters are to be adored and the rest are to be admonished. What it all creates is a fear of followership. It makes people hesitant to be a follower because they worry they’ll be perceived as a loser. As a result, they chase a career up the corporate ladder, not because they’re suited to being a leader but because they want to avoid the stigma attached to being a follower.
A few decades ago, researchers at Cornell University coined an apt little phrase – the romance of leadership – to explain the mysticism surrounding it. There’s something about leadership, something infatuating, that attracts so many of us. Maybe it’s the authority or the prestige or the money or … the dread of being left behind as a mere follower, relegated to the misery of following instructions.
This YouTube clip discredits any idea that followers are inferior to leaders. The clip begins with a shirtless guy dancing on his own at a festival. Within a couple of minutes, dozens have joined him. It’s a quirky yet profound example of a truism that people are increasingly realising: sometimes the best leaders aren’t leaders. They’re followers.
The leadership development movement has made huge inroads into the outdated mentality that followers are just subordinates to be dominated by stronger and more capable bosses. Today, it’s a different story. Employees must be engaged! They must be empowered! They must be valued!
These sorts of HR buzzwords – some of which, granted, are cringe-worthy – make the simple claim that followers matter. And they matter because, as Kellerman summarises in her book, “followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers”.
Are you a follower … or a leader? And do you care? Leave a comment.
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