Followership in higher education: Academic teachers and their formal leaders


  • Jennie Billot AUT University
  • Deborah West Charles Darwin University
  • Lana Khong Nanyang Technological University
  • Christina Skorobohacz Brock University
  • Torgny Roxå Lund University
  • Shannon Murray University of Prince Edward Island
  • Barbara Gayle Viterbo University



fellowship, academic leadership, narratives, relational spaces


The concept of followership in higher education has been given limited attention despite the fact that followers are key players in the follower/leader equation and that leadership is increasingly seen as vital to improving the student learning experience. This paper explores this concept, reporting on the findings of a qualitative study underpinned by a socio-constructivist framework. Thirty-eight narratives describing the experience of being a follower and interacting with a formal leader were collected from academic teachers in seven institutions worldwide and analysed using inductive content analysis. The richness of the narratives collected illustrates the intricate relationship formed by the followership/leadership interaction. The results affirm the premise that, just as teachers are defined by their students’ learning, leaders are defined by their followers’ engagement. However, some teachers also display a strong reluctance towards the very idea of being a follower in academia where critical and independent thinking form the backbone of all practices. Negotiation, responsibility, and mutual respect appear essential aspects of any form of followership/leadership interaction as it directly or indirectly influences student learning and personal development. The research presented suggests that, in challenging times, academic leaders must attend to the characteristics and needs of their followers.


Metrics Loading ...

Author Biographies

Jennie Billot, AUT University

Jennie Billot, PhD, is the Postgraduate Research Education Leader at AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand.

Deborah West, Charles Darwin University

Deborah West is the Director of the Office of Learning and Teaching at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, Australia.

Lana Khong, Nanyang Technological University

Lana Khong is a Lecturer in the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Singapore.

Christina Skorobohacz, Brock University

Christina Skorobohacz is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada.

Torgny Roxå, Lund University

Torgny Roxå is an Academic Developer at Lund University, Sweden, and ISSOTL Vice President for European Countries.

Shannon Murray, University of Prince Edward Island

Shannon Murray is a Professor and 3M National Teaching Fellow in the Department of English at University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Barbara Gayle, Viterbo University

Barbara Mae Gayle, PhD, is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Studies at Viterbo University, USA.


Åkerlind, G., & Kayrooz, C. (2003). Understanding academic freedom: The views of social scientists. Higher Education Research & Development: Journal of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia, 22(3), 327–344.

Allan, E. J., Gordon, S. P., & Iverson, S. V. (2006). Re/thinking practices of power: The discursive framing of leadership in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Review of Higher Education: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, 30(1), 41–68.

Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2011). Metaphors we lead by. London: Routledge.

Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY : Doubleday.

Berlin, I. (2000). Two concepts of liberty. In H. Hardy & R. Hausheer (Eds.), The proper study of mankind: An anthology of essays (pp. 191–242). New York: Farrat, Straus and Giroux.

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university. Maidenhead, England: The Society for Research into Higher Education.

Billot, J., & Codling, A. (2013). Identifying the tensions of implementing research strategies: Implications for organizational leaders. Management in Education: The Journal of Professional Practice, 27(2), 75-80.

Bjugstad, K., Thach, E., Thompson, K., & Morris, A. (2006). A fresh look at followership: A model for matching followership and leadership styles. Journal of Behavioral & Applied Management, 7, 304–319.

Bligh, M. (2011). Followership and follower-centred approaches. In A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson, & M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.). The Sage handbook of leadership (pp. 425–436). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Carsten, M. K., Uhl-Bien, M., West, B. J., Patera, J. L., & McGregor, R. (2010). Exploring social constructions of followership: A qualitative study. The Leadership Quarterly, 21, 543–562.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research methods in education (7th ed.). London: Routledge.

Cousin, G. (2009). Researching learning in higher education: An introduction to contemporary methods and approaches. New York: Routledge.

Cox, R. W., Plagens, G. K., & Sylla, K. (2010). The leadership-followership dynamic: Making the choice to follow. International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 5(8), 37–51.

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2003). The landscape of qualitative research: Theories and issues (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gibbs, G., Knapper, C., & Picinnin, S. (2009). Departmental leadership for quality teaching—an international comparative study of effective practice. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Giddens, A. (2004). The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gosling, J., Bolden, R., & Petrov, G. (2009). Distributed leadership in higher education: What does it accomplish? Leadership, 5(3), 299–310.

Jones, S., Lefoe, G., Harvey, M., & Ryland, K. (2012). Distributed leadership: A collaborative framework for academics, executives and professionals in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1), 67–78.

Kean, S., & Haycock-Stuart, E. (2011). Understanding the relationship between followers and leaders. Nursing Management, 18, 31–35.

Kezar, A., & Lester, J. (2011). Enhancing campus capacity for leadership: An examination of grassroots leaders in higher education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Marshall, S. J., Orrell, J., Cameron, A., Bosanquet, A., & Thomas, S. (2011). Leading and managing learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development: Journal of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, 30(2), 87–103.

Martin, E., Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., & Ramsden, P. (2003). Variation in the experience of leadership of teaching in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), 247–259.

Ramsden, P., Prosser, M., Trigwell, K., & Martin, E. (2007). University teachers’ experiences of academic leadership and their approaches to teaching. Learning and Instruction, 17, 140–155.

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (in press). How leaders can influence higher education cultures. Perspectives on Pedagogy and Practice.

Trevelyan, R. (2001). The paradox of autonomy: A case of academic research scientists. Human Relations, 54(4), 495–525.

Uhl-Bien, M. (2006). Relational leadership theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. The Leadership Quarterly: An International Journal of Political, Social and Behavioral Science, 17(6), 654–676.

Weaver, L., Pifer, M. J., & Colbeck, C. L. (2009). Janusian leadership: Two profiles of power in a community of practice. Innovative Higher Education, 34, 307–320.

Webster, L., & Mertova, P. (2007). Using narrative inquiry as a research method: An introduction to using critical event narrative analysis in research on learning and teaching. London: Routledge.




How to Cite

Billot, Jennie, Deborah West, Lana Khong, Christina Skorobohacz, Torgny Roxå, Shannon Murray, and Barbara Gayle. 2013. “Followership in Higher Education: Academic Teachers and Their Formal Leaders”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 1 (2):91-103.



Articles: International Perspectives on the Scholarship of Academic Practice