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Thinking ‘follower first’: A new approach to leadership studies

Could changing the focus of leadership studies from the leader to the follower produce more substantial gains within the discipline?

Lisa DeFrank-Cole headshot
Lisa DeFrank-Cole

Lisa DeFrank-Cole, director of the Leadership Studies Program at West Virginia University, is looking at the field in a new light.

DeFrank-Cole recently published an edited book with Sherylle Tan, director of internships and research at the Kravis Leadership Institute, called “Women’s Leadership Journeys.” The book brings together research from leading scholars with stories from women leaders in diverse sectors to provide insights from their leadership journeys.

DeFrank-Cole sat down with us to discuss how leadership studies is progressing as a discipline and new approaches to elevating women into leadership roles.

What is one of the most memorable stories from the book?

One of the chapters that I wrote with my mother was a tri-generational story about my mother, my grandmother and me. I asked myself, “Why am I teaching leadership studies, and why is my passion women and leadership?”

Women's Leadership Journeys

Through six to eight months of conversations with my mother, we used collaborative autoethnography as a method to talk through and identify leadership activities in her life and in my life. We also recollected stories about my grandmother, who is deceased, and reviewed transcripts that were derived from oral interviews with her more than 30 years ago. We came up with community service as a common denominator that allowed each of us to demonstrate leadership. Specifically, I was inspired when I saw women in my family accomplishing goals without holding a formal job. What I got out of this as a faculty member is that leadership cannot be defined as only a position, particularly a paid position. Leadership is a process of influence, and many women have had influence without authority.

How do you then recognize the work of women who are leaders outside of a traditional leadership position?

The influence that women are demonstrating – that’s leadership, and I think we need to identify it as such. Writing that chapter with my mother was enjoyable, but it was also insightful in convincing me that we need to expand the definition of leadership, to take peoples’ blinders off in thinking of it just as a position and thinking of it as a process of influence.

What recommendations do you have for women who are undergoing their journey to a leadership position?

Think “follower first.” Perhaps read a little bit about followership and know that the word “follower” is not bad, and that to be an exemplary follower is truly admirable. My graduate assistant at the time, Brent Bishop, and I created a model for a later chapter in the book about women and followership. We advocate that all people should start from that framework first and then move into leadership, from understanding the role of being a good follower. Having good followership skills means that a person can think independently and be actively engaged in an organization. From there one will begin to understand the relationship between leader and follower and become the leader that integrates and trains leaders and followers together while appreciating the generative partnership that develops.

Have you seen an increase in the number of women in leadership positions throughout your professional career?

I can see small gains in certain places, but that number of 5 percent of women being Fortune 500 CEOs hasn’t changed much since I have been studying it. We know historically in our country that there have been more male leaders than women leaders. We have never had a female president, and the majority of Congress is men. It is not a pipeline issue in that there are not enough women getting education. More women have been getting bachelor’s degrees than men since the 1980s – the statistics suggest that we should be seeing more women in leadership roles based on education levels, but we’re not.

What is important for others to know about your research?

While I’m talking about and advocating for more women to become leaders, this picture is bigger than just focusing on women and leadership. We are talking about gender as a spectrum and that we want to simultaneously expand opportunities for men and women. For example, we think societal gender norms foster a sense of hyper-masculinity in our culture. How might we allow men to expand their roles beyond just wage earners and allow them, for example, to become more involved in their children’s lives?

Is there a disconnect between leadership studies in theory and in practice?

If I were to use a personal example, there have been occasions in my own life where I know what the literature says, and I know that women should try to negotiate more, but at the same time there can be backlash against women who negotiate. How do I stand up as a female, as a lone voice, for something or for myself, or for others in a group? Is there a disconnect? Yes, and I see it in myself and in other women. Just because we know women should be more self-confident, for example, doesn’t always mean that we know how to do it or feel comfortable showing our confidence. I’m trying to get better at it and think in time, with practice, will get better at it. However, it should not just be about “fixing” the woman. How can we recognize and value what women bring to the table without penalizing them for perceived deficits? Collaboration, rather than competition, should be valued as well as diverse teams composed of many types of people. We know that diverse teams (and those that include women) outperform homogenous ones – or those made up of individuals who are similar.