Claiming and Granting Leadership

by Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester, Associate Professor at San Jose State University

Often when we discuss leadership, we think of it (as Dr. Palanski noted ) as one person telling others what to do. He discussed the idea of shared leadership, where the group decides together to take action. Beyond the idea of shared leadership is also the role that followers play in the leadership process. In a true leadership process, the followers are equally as important as the leaders.


A leader cannot lead without followers choosing to engage in the process. One way of looking at this is to think about different behaviors that we enact when interacting with others. Do we “claim” a leader role by speaking first, sitting at the head of the table, or volunteering to seek out a solution to a problem? Do we “claim” a follower role by offering to help when needed, or holding back in the moment because we have other responsibilities? Do we “grant” someone else the leader role by offering to help when needed? Do we “grant” someone a follower role by delegating a task for them? What about those who avoid taking a position at all?

Think back over your behaviors at work, at home, and in your community. What roles do you take in each of those domains? We’ve discussed quite a few ways to develop your leadership abilities over the years, but let’s focus on followership for a second. Most of us must take follower roles in some areas of our lives; we are all too busy and only have a finite amount of resources to continually be in the leader position. So when we do claim a follower role, are we acting in good faith? Are we supporting our leaders to the best of our abilities?

Research on followership notes individuals may take different perspectives on the meaning of the follower role. In one view, a follower is anyone who formally or informally reports to an individual in a leadership role. The other approach, similar to what I discussed earlier, is the idea that the follower has an active and important role in the leadership process. This view moves beyond the idea of followers as sheep who blindly follow their shepherd to one where followers have an active duty to participate in the goals set out by the organization, family, team, etc. Proactive followership behaviors can include feedback-seeking, using influence tactics, taking initiative, and in some cases, breaking the rules when necessary.

Opportunities for proactive followership do depend on the types of leaders present. Some leaders feel threatened by proactive followers and would prefer a group of subordinates (word choice here is deliberate) that do not question the leaders’ actions. However, more effective leaders look to their followers to help accelerate the organization/team/community towards its goals. The latest research on followership shows numerous positive outcomes from proactive followers.

If you find that you are looking to be more proactive – at work, at home, in your community –  the first step is to think about the behaviors you exhibit. Are you actively granting leadership opportunities to someone else, which is part of an engaged process, or are you just ceding leadership responsibilities? If you want to be more proactive, try discussing the vision or goals with your boss, your partner, or your community leader. Decide if you agree with that vision, and if not, ask questions and maybe pose some thoughts or creative solutions of your own. It does take time and energy, but the feeling of empowerment and active participation in the leadership process will positively impact other areas of your life.

What claiming and granting behaviors have you enacted recently?

About the author
Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester is an Associate Professor at San Jose State University. She teaches the capstone strategic management course, as well as the applied organizational behavior course located in Silicon Valley. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and her MBA from DePaul University. Her research encompasses leadership development, leader identity, and communication between leaders and followers. She has published in such journals as The Leadership Quarterly, Organizational Dynamics, the Academy of Management Learning and Education, the Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies, the Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, and Human Resource Development Review. She also has presented her work at the Academy of Management Conferences and serves as a reviewer for a number of leadership journals. Prior to academia, Dr. Vogelgesang Lester worked in the financial industry as a wealth management trust officer. She has also worked with such organizations at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Science