Who You Influence: 5 Types of Followers

Either people are on board with your leadership or not, right? Nope.

There are degrees of influence and different types of followers. The mantra of “get on board or get off” does not take into account the numerous types of followers and differing levels of leadership influence.

Most definitions of leadership allude to influence as the key driver. But I do not believe leadership and influence are synonymous—leader and follower exchanges are more complex than mere influence. However, leaders do influence followers. And the influencing process is made complex because followers are not a monolithic group.

Knowing how to influence begins with an understanding of who is following you. In her work, Followership, Barbara Kellerman identifies five types of followers based upon their level of engagement with the leader.

The isolate is completely detached. No influence exists between leader and follower. A formal relationship of power may be in place, such as between a congressman and constituent, but an isolate does not know or care about the leader.

The bystander observes the leader but does not participate in any interaction. These followers make a decision to stand on the sidelines. A small amount of influence occurs in this type of relationship. The bystander’s decision to withdraw, however, points to a position of neutrality about the leader.

The participant is more engaged and clearly favors or disfavors the leader. These followers are willing to invest time and resources in support or opposition of the current leadership.

The activist has strong emotional feelings about the leader. They act on these emotions and work hard to support the leader (or to undermine the leader). These followers are highly engaged with leadership and are often closely connected to many of the activities in which leaders are involved.

The diehard is the most engaged with leaders. These followers are willing to die for the cause of their leaders, often exhibiting deep devotion. Conversely, diehards who oppose the leader would die in order to remove the leader. A diehard forms an all-consuming identity around the leader and his or her causes.

As a leader, I would like to think most of my followers are supportive diehards. But it’s not the case. Most likely, it is not the case in your leadership role either. Understanding the types of followers (and who is in each camp) is critical to knowing how to influence. Believing people are simply on board or not will cause you to place too much distance between bystanders and participants. Focusing too much time on supportive or opposing diehards causes a leader to lose sight of the masses. Good leaders understand that knowing how to influence includes understanding the complexities of who to influence.

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Sam Rainer III

Sam serves as lead pastor of West Bradenton Baptist Church. He is also the president of Rainer Research, and he is the co-founder/co-owner of Rainer Publishing. His desire is to provide answers for better church health. Sam is author of the book, Obstacles in the Established Church, and the co-author of the book, Essential Church. He is an editorial advisor/contributor at Church Executive magazine. He has also served as a consulting editor at Outreach magazine. He has written over 150 articles on church health for numerous publications, and he is a frequent conference speaker. Before submitting to the call of ministry, Sam worked in a procurement consulting role for Fortune 1000 companies. Sam holds a B.S. in Finance and Marketing from the University of South Carolina, an M.A. in Missiology from Southern Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Dallas Baptist University.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

James Wheeler — 02/11/13 5:26 pm

Sam you said, "But I do not believe leadership and influence are synonymous—leader and follower exchanges are more complex than mere influence. " I'm so glad someone is starting to clearly articulate this truth. It discovers a basic flaw that permeates so many books on leadership. I have experienced this complexity over years in ministry and I've seen leaders fail when trying to lead out of the "playbooks" written on influence. I've found greater success as a leader by intuitively operating in a way that keeps bystanders a part of the group. Unfortunately it can create disgruntled loyalists and that sometimes creates a whole new challenge. But overall I think this approach is ultimately more rewarding and effective. Thanks for writing on this, it has been an encouragement to me!

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I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
"While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

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