Fearless Followership

Cory Dobbs, Ed.D.

Founder, The Academy for Sport Leadership


NOTE: This exercise is designed to be facilitated by a student‐athlete team leader. Have all members of the team read the short narrative and then answer the questions that follow.

Fearless Followership

Pursuing a Higher Standard of Leadership and Followership

Imagine going to your school’s health office for a visit because you’re experiencing dizzy spells. Before you’ve had a chance to describe your symptoms, the doctor writes out a prescription and says, “Take two of these pills two times a day, and call me next week.”

“Excuse me, but—I haven’t told you what’s wrong,” you say, trying to articulate your condition. “How do you know this will help me?” “Why wouldn’t it?” says the doctor. “It worked for my last patient.” Confused by the doctor’s message and not wanting to offend her you just go along with the doctor’s directive. Rather than confront your doctor you take a sheepish approach and figure that you’ll just wait until later when not in her presence to sort things out.

In this scenario the leader is the doctor with you in the role of the patient. As a patient you are expected to follow the doctor’s directions. To question her is to question her legitimacy and authority. However, as you can see in this scenario, this presents a problem for you as your needs of the moment were neglected.

The traditional stereotype of the follower is of someone that is unwilling or unable to play a significant role in the direction a group desires to go. It is then assumed they are better suited to follow someone willing to provide direction. Generally, the role of followership has a negative connotation. Merely conceptualizing a follower “conjures up images of docility, conformity, weakness, and failure to excel” (Chaleff, 1995). Our culture tends to label followers as passive individuals lacking the “right stuff,” or someone without drive and ambition. However, effective leadership doesn’t happen without dynamic and committed followers.

Followership is important in any discussion of successful team leadership for several reasons. First, leadership and followership are fundamental roles that all athletes will move into and out of depending on the circumstances. It’s a given that as a team leader your primary role is that of a follower of your coaches. Second, just as you expect to influence the attitudes and actions of teammates you should be open to being influenced by teammates. Third, many of the characteristics that are desirable in a team leader are the same qualities possessed by committed and productive followers. Finally, the nature of the leader-follower role in team sports involves you being open to influence and change just as you look to influence and change teammates committed to common goals.

To succeed as a team leader it is essential you appreciate and respect your teammates as followers. One way in which you can do this is to embrace fearless followership. Fearless followership is the courage to take a bold stand and demonstrate the initiative to engage with teammates in an extraordinary way. A fearless follower will challenge a teammate who threatens the cohesiveness, values, or goals of the team. That is, the fearless follower is willing to hold teammates—including a team captain—accountable for team norms, standards, and expectations. Both leaders and followers have got to encourage active and attentive followership and build the relationships needed to move the team forward.

Think of it this way, if you and I agree that team captains should lead with integrity shouldn’t we expect followers to follow with integrity. If a team member falls short of expectations—including team captains—teammates must be comfortable calling them on it, but by letting them know the team needs them. In other words, not attacking the teammate but bringing them into the collective aspirations of the team. Together, team leaders and followers striving toward a collaborative relationship based on fearless
commitment to each other will create a more cohesive team capable of achieving team goals.

Followers want to be:
Accepted Connected Trusted Cared about
Supported Valued Respected A friend
Followers don’t want to be:
Rejected Disconnected Judged Neglected
Disrespected Not Valued Left out A foe
Exercise: Team Leader to Facilitate
Appoint one or two member’s of your team to facilitate a conversation regarding the

The facilitator asks: What do you do when a teammate is:

  • Unfocused
  • Coasting
  • Feeling superior
  • Undisciplined
  • Not coachable at a crucial moment
  • Showing disrespect for teammates
  • Making excuses
  • Showing a lack of respect for competitors
  • Has failed to keep a commitment

*This is a leadership tool created by the Academy for Sport Leadership. The Academy for Sport Leadership is a leading educational leadership training firm that uses sound educational principles, research, and learning theories to create leadership resources. The academy has developed a coherent leadership development framework and programs covering the cognitive, psycho‐motor, emotional and social dimensions of learning, thus addressing the dimensions necessary for healthy development and growth of student‐athletes

To find out more about and order Sport Leadership Books authored by Dr. Dobbs including a Leader in Every Locker that this post was taken from, Click this link: The Academy for Sport Leadership Books

About the Author

A former basketball coach, Cory’s coaching background includes experience at the NCAA DII, NJCAA, and high school levels of competition. While coaching, he researched and developed the transformative Becoming a Team Leader program for student-athletes. Cory has worked with professional athletes, collegiate athletic programs and high schools teaching leadership as a part of the sports experience and education process. Cory cut his teeth as a corporate leader with Fortune 500 member, The Dial Corp. As a consultant and trainer Dr. Dobbs has worked with such organizations as American Express, Honeywell, and Avnet.

Cory has taught a variety of courses on leadership and change for the following universities:

Northern Arizona University (Graduate Schools of Business and Education)

Ohio University (Graduate School of Education / Management and Leadership in Sport)

Grand Canyon University (Sports Marketing and Sports Management in the Colangelo School of Sports Business)

Visit www.corydobbs.com to read Cory’s leadership blog.

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