Bystanders, Evil doers and Acolytes

“Leaders need followers, if followers are lacking, the best and worst ideas have little or no effect.”

-Al Gini, Professor of Business Ethics at Loyola University

Barbara Kellerman, an organisational psychologist has written lot of books on leadership and followership. While most of the experts on organisational leadership focus on traits of individuals (what traits make a leader), Kellerman believes that followers are equally important in making leader successful (or unsuccessful)

“Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”

— Barbara Kellerman

Leadership could be good or bad leadership, in both cases followers play important role in making leader successful. While there are lot of books written on good leaders and their followers, bad leadership and followership is rarely discussed. Even in discussion focus is on what wrong decisions leaders took, while there is no discussion on role played by followers who helped leader to survive for certain period of time.

Kellerman classifies bad followers into three categories.

First category is that of bystanders. Bystanders are not fervent followers of the leader, but they go along with the agenda of the leader. The reason for going along with agenda could be either they believe in agenda or they act in self-interest, because cost of resisting agenda is higher than cost of doing nothing. Whenever there are riots, violence, harassment of employees they may not participate, but won’t support the victim either.

Innocent bystanders are real tough to convict: 'You saw it happen, why didn't you do anything?'

Second category is that of evil doers, unlike bystanders they are not just passive supporters or observers, they actually participate in agenda and implement it. These are usually the foot soldiers of the organisation; they behave that way because they are told to do so. These are ones who actually participate in looting, arson, murder, harassment etc. when asked to do so by their leaders.

evil doer

Third category is that of acolytes, unlike evil doers they are not just active participants but are deeply committed to their leader’s agenda. As Kellerman says they are “mesmerized by charm of the leader”. They participate in implementing agenda of leader because they want to.


All three categories are equally bad, as they form base on which the leadership rests.


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