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Followership during the Covid-19 Pandemic: What can we learn? by Yathu Maheswaran

We are delighted to present the winning essay for The Ian Noble Essay Prize 2020 – Followership during the Covid-19 Pandemic: What can we learn?

by Yathu Maheswaran

‘There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it’.

Edith Wharton(1)

The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought many of the challenges facing leaders into sharp focus. Fighting a global pandemic has demanded a large-scale coordinated effort, with leaders calling on the public to bear individual costs for the collective good(2). Despite early predictions of events of this scale, leaders and governments have received criticism for their levels of preparedness and subsequent response(3–5). Widespread uncertainty, misinformation and the threat to health have all held a mirror up to society showing us that the human effort against COVID-19 relies not only on the quality of leadership but on our reflection of It – our followership.

The trust of followers is earned, not implicit

Stanley Milgram famously argued in Obedience to Authority that people follow mindlessly and instinctively, sparing little thought for their reasoning(6). However, our own experiences teach us that trust and faith are important tenets in the leader-follower relationship. As the pandemic unfurled, it has been clear that people’s willingness to follow is dependent on their trust of leaders and faith in authorities(7). But the trust of followers is earned, not implicit. It fluctuates over time as a function of a leader’s service to their followers(8,9). Specifically, we trust a leader whom we perceive to be one of us.

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern presented a clear example of this. Her self-portrayal as a “regular” New Zealander with messages from her living room helped to garner trust of the population and secure a high level of compliance with strict lockdown measures(10). These observations add to the body of evidence that people prefer leaders who cultivate a sense of togetherness and shared experience. This provides a collective sense of self-efficacy(11,12) which is vital to people’s ability to persist in trying times(13). Whether it was Ardern’s assertions of a “team of 5 million” (14); Chancellor Rishi Sunak concluding his announcement of  the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme with the words “It’s on all of us” (15); or the World Health Organisation’s calls for “Global Action” and “solidarity”(16); constructing a shared social identity has been key to fostering strong followership, in-group commitment and adherence to norms(17).

Taken further, trust in authorities and excessive efforts to foster national unity can be maladaptive to followership. In previous global crises such as the 2014 Ebola Epidemic, The US assumed the role of global leader. The current US administration has been criticised for abdicating the job of leader, blaming other groups for their own misfortunes and pursuing national self-interest(18). This focus on the nations image but not on the population could explain the chilling disparity between the 22% of COVID-19 deaths in the USA – a nation accounting for 4% of the world’s population(19). Despite facing these levels of mortality, the government has still maintained a sizeable 42% approval rating, highlighting the damage that can result from misplaced followership(20).

‘Followers and leaders both orbit around the purpose; followers do not orbit around the leader’

Ira Chaleff(21)

Robert Kelley argued that the pursuit of an organisational goal drives effective followership(22). The unifying rhetoric of togetherness employed by global leaders went further and linked good followership with good citizenship. Thus, the scope of followership was expanded to serving society’s collective effort against COVID-19 rather than the visions of individuals leaders and organisations. Leaders and followers now working towards shared societal goals draws attention to the reciprocity of their relationship(23). Other drivers of followership during COVID-19 included social norms, altruism and resistance to divisive ideologies.

Social Norms

Social norms, referring to the perception of which behaviours are acceptable and widespread, are a powerful force influencing human behaviour and followership(2). In the news and across social media, public messages reinforced positive norms such as hand washing and physical distancing with a largely positive impact(2).  Perceived norms are most influential when specific to those with whom common identities are shared(24). Social connection through daily coronavirus updates or group Zoom calls helped us all to share a common identity, despite being confined to our homes(25,26). This social connection and availability of information served as a double edged sword by simultaneously promoting non-desirable behaviours such as noncompliance with social distancing measures(27). This contributed to inaccurate perceptions of norms and underestimation of health promoting behaviours(28).

These observations are suggestive of a model of followership in which we follow not only leaders, but other followers in the community. This has the potential to generate large scale co-operation and positive behaviour, but also maladaptive behaviours reinforced by misperception of norms.


Popular culture would have us believe that in times of crisis, people act blindly in the pursuit of self-preservation at the expense of others(29). This certainly seemed to be the case when supermarket shelves were empty and governments and business leaders urged us not to ‘panic buy’(30).  Whilst this can be applicable to some of the population, it is not the whole story. Fighting a global pandemic requires large scale cooperation and prioritising longer-term collective interest over short-term self-interest(2). Evidence showed that mutual aid groups among the public became widespread(31). Furthermore, the UK’s National Health Service called for 250,000 volunteers to help isolated seniors and medical staff(32). COVID-19 brought altruism to the fore, giving credence to the idea that humans come together in times of crisis to serve a shared purpose. We can further encourage cooperation by making these positive behaviours more observable – an achievable feat in the most connected world to-date.

Prejudice and the Pandemic

The threat of disease has historically been associated with higher levels of ethnocentrism(33), leading to punitive attitudes of different groups, discrimination and violence. We need only look to the Bubonic Plague to see how many communities were eradicated in the name of fear and discrimination(2,34). Whilst this cannot be generalised to all pandemics, divisive discourse was demonstrated in our recent history when SARS-CoV-2 was mischaracterised as a ‘Chinese virus’ by government officials(35).

Co-ordinated efforts across communities have emerged to fight both the pandemic and prejudice including the reciprocal donation of medical supplies across the world or the launch of mass media campaigns to challenge attitudes towards at-risk groups in society(2,36). These acts exemplify active and discerning followership which can withdraw from potentially destructive leadership. We can observe that followers do not simply respond to authorities, but rather, to each other and the purpose affecting them all.

A Followership Divided

A challenge for followership during the COVID-19 pandemic was political polarization – the divergence of political ideologies(2). Ease of access to various media and the ability of individuals to self-select partisan ‘echo-chambers’ makes this a frightening reality(37). With it, comes the potential for decreased trust.  The constant presence of major political discourse in the mainstream media helped to highlight bipartisan support for the COVID-19 effort(2,26). It showed the public that the virus was an indiscriminate threat shared by all – once more drawing attention to our collective shared identity.

Increasing levels of public uncertainty and anxiety created a demand for timely information about COVID-19. Yet as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO warned, we have faced an “infodemic” – an overabundance of information of variable accuracy spreading at an alarming rate(38).  Cristina Tardáguila, associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), called COVID-19 “the biggest challenge fact checkers have ever faced”(39). It is a problem exacerbated by the public having increased time to consume content under imposed lockdown, and an increased amount of time spent interacting over social media platforms rather than in person(2). It has fallen to the followership to make sense of the cacophony of voices across multiple media platforms, competing to make sense of the crisis. People have risen to the occasion. As an example, Americans have chosen to listen to Dr Anthony Fauci in place of other authoritative institutions, gravitating towards expertise in a time of uncertainty(40).

This act of active and discerning followership demonstrates an important idea in democracy – that we will continue to choose the authority to follow. Good followership demands good leadership from authority figures.

The Age of Followership: A Conclusion

This is the age of followership in which being an effective follower requires critical thought and altruism when faced with uncertainty, divisive discourse and multiple competing voices.  Scholarly discussion often paints followership in a less-than-favourable light, suggesting that it is a role for those lacking the traits of leaders(23). The global population’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows that this could not be further from the truth.

Illuminated by Edith Wharton’s metaphor of candles and mirrors, we can see how followership is as important to the effort against COVID-19 as leadership is, if not more so. Followership is a powerful force that is both reciprocal to and demanding of effective leadership. Ultimately, we can trust that effective followers will continue to speak power to authority in the interest of a shared purpose – now and in the future.


Bio Yathu is a junior doctor with interests in critical care medicine, global health and medical education. He graduated from Imperial College London and completed his Foundation Training in the West Midlands. He is currently working in New Zealand before resuming his training in the UK.


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