Exploring the context-embedded nature of followership


Contemporary theorizing positions leadership and followership as emergent roles that co-evolve out of a shared understanding of who will lead and who will follow in a given social interaction (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014).  Based on this social constructivist viewpoint, the notion that followership represents a static role dictated by hierarchical boundaries is oversimplified, and followership is better understood as a dynamic process that is contextually-situated. Thus, the purpose of our study was to explore how interpretations of followership differ across the contexts in which sport teams operate.  Semi-structured interviews were conducted with fourteen coaches of Canadian Interuniversity Sport teams to capture contextually-situated descriptions of followership.  The conduct and corresponding analysis of interviews were guided by Srivastava and Hopwood’s (2009) reflexive iterative framework.  The thematic analysis revealed several personality characteristics that were consistently described in relation to ideal followership (i.e., active independent thought, balanced processing of information, collective orientation, relational transparency). Coaches noted, however, that the perceived utility of followership behaviours depended upon contextual boundaries including the performance demands of a given situation, whether interactions were in public or private, and the topic under discussion (e.g., personnel decisions were often non-negotiable).  Followership expectations also differed according to the interpersonal dynamics at play, which included the relative status of individuals involved in the leader-follower interaction and their relationship history.  Despite coaches’ precision in specifying how their expectations of followership differed across contexts, six coaches indicated that they never explicitly broached the topic of followership with their teams.  Nevertheless, coaches’ interpretations of followership offer insight into the context-embedded nature of followership and elucidate how acts of followership are implicated in the leadership process.  Conceptual considerations for future work examining followership in sport are discussed in relation to the extant theories of followership in organizational contexts.  

Acknowledgments: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement