Understanding the Four Follower Types – Part 2

In our first article, 5 Traits of Millennial Leadership – Part 1, we described the 5 trait Millennials look for in their leaders:

  • Mutual Respect
  • Appreciation for Accomplished Work
  • Assigned Something of Significance
  • Adaptability
  • Trust

This article is the second in a series of articles based on our research, analysis and findings. The articles in the series are

Additionally, Millennial Leadership Initiative – View Our Preliminary Findings Video contains our presentation at Pennsylvania State University – Abington Campus.

During our study to answer the question of Millennials’ perspective of leadership, we examined follower types. We discovered four main types with one type bifurcating into two branches:

  • Proactive
  • Die-hard Loyalist
  • Sheep
  • Isolate

These categories are broad generalizations of people groups. Each follower typically possesses the characteristics of each follower category to varying degrees but displays a more dominate follower type. Additionally, there are no “hard edges” between the categories. In other words, a particular follower could be considered in two categories.  These categories are described for the benefit of the leader to help determine the make-up of a his/her team and how best to lead each team member.

Additionally, followers may exhibit different follower categorization depending on the leader and situation. This phenomenon is understandable since neither leadership and followership is a science but more of an art form.

We provide leadership suggestions for each group in a subsequent article.


The Proactive follower actively participates in the team’s mission and leader’s vision. He/she provides input, generates ideas, questions and challenges thoughts and invents new solutions. His/her loyalty is to the work at hand and the goals to be accomplished. He/she believes in the mission and wants to be materially involved in the generation of the effort’s result.Proactive Follower Type

The challenge of a proactive follower is his/her questioning the leader. In most cases, he/she is respectful of the leader’s ability and is only challenging ideas or methods to accomplish the ideas. The questions stem from the desire for improvement, not to bash or tear down the leader’s image or thoughts. If taken wrongly, the leader considers questions to be challenges to his/her authority, knowledge, expertise, etc. Of course, too many questions or suggestions can impede progress and wear on others’ emotions.

Die-hard Loyalist

The Die-hard Loyalist follower enthusiastically embraces the leader. He/she is less concerned about the team’s mission or leader’s vision. In some cases, he/she blindly follows the leader wherever the leader leads. In the mind of the Die-hard Loyalist, the leader is right, has the brightest and best ideas, knows what needs to be done and delegates to the followers the tasks to accomplish the goals. No need to question or wonder if the path being taken is right or leading to the desired end-result.

Die-hard Loyalist Follower TypeGood leaders appreciate loyal followers, but Die-hard Loyalists don’t help the leader see blind spots, errors in judgment, missing knowledge or information, etc. The “band of merry men/women” continue down the primrose path, and in some cases, to undesirable results. In most cases, the highest quality outcome is not achieved because of the lack of insight or questioning. Fortunately, few teams are comprised of a single type of follower.


The Sheep follower is neither wedded to the leader or the project. He/she is emotionally detached to the effort and leader. Basically, he/she completes the work for the pay. He/she does what is necessary to maintain the job and collect the paycheck but doesn’t really care what he/she does to earn the wage. His/her work may be stellar. He/she could be an overachiever. But his/her loyalty is to himself/herself and earning a living. Sheep come in different shapes, sizes and colors. He/she may be hard to distinguish because of the manner of work. The key identifier to determining a follower type is the loyalty: to the mission, the leader or the pay?Sheep Follower Type

For a leader, the difficulty of this follower is motivating the Sheep. Without digging deep through questioning and listening carefully, the leader may not detect the follower is a Sheep. The leader may think because of the follower’s performance, he/she is onboard with the mission. On a positive note, the Sheep usually follows and does the work to be done, but he/she doesn’t necessarily consider the next step, consequences of current efforts or anticipate anything beyond the work assigned. The leader must always be ready with the next item to be accomplished ready to assign to the Sheep for continued work.


Isolate followers are peculiar. For the majority of Isolate follower cases, an Isolate did not start out that way. Usually an Isolate starts out as a Proactive, Die-hard Loyalist or a Sheep. Due to circumstances or experiences, Isolates evolve over time to the isolate state.

In the case of the Proactive follower, he/she experienced enough leaders who either didn’t listen or respond to the Proactive’s questions, suggestions, ideas, challenges or discussion. The leader’s actions or inactions demoralized the Proactive to the point of no longer caring about the mission, thus, the Proactive evolves into an Isolate. He/she simply continues to do the work, but withholds the valuable questions, ideas, etc. intrinsic to the Proactive. As a result, the overall mission is compromised, but the oblivious leader is none-the-wiser. The leader assumes all is well and now, since the Proactive is silent, he/she obviously agrees and is aligned with the effort. Silence is considered approval.

Isolate Follower Type, #millennialleadership, millennial leadershipA Die-hard Loyalist follower becomes disillusioned about the leader. Something happens where the Loyalist no longer views the leader in the same way. Situations occurring such as the leader ignoring the Loyalist’s loyalty, damning news reveals the leader is not the person envisioned by the Loyalist, bad outcomes shake the Loyalist’s confidence in the leader or simply some action taken by the leader leaves the Loyalist despondent such as the leader abandoning the Loyalist when he/she moves to a new position. Without a leader, the Loyalist is lost and isolated.

Sheep typically do not become Isolates. Since Sheep are motivated by the pay, not the leader. If the leader is bad or good, a Sheep doesn’t care. If the leader does or doesn’t listen, a Sheep doesn’t care. He/she continues for the pay. At the same time, a Sheep’s apathy can grow to the point he/she becomes an Isolate.

Two Sub-categories of Isolates

Isolate followers will fall within two sub-categories: Saboteur and Entrepreneur.

A Saboteur, also known as a disgruntled employee, can be both visible or invisible. A Saboteur may challenge everything the leader says and does just to be disruptive. He/she may become rude and disrespectful but not always to the point of being dismissed. His/her work may become sub-par resulting in lost time, money and productivity. His/her attitude may infect other team members causing divisiveness among the other followers.

An invisible Saboteur does not exhibit those characteristics. Instead, he/she is resistive to anything the leader says or does. He/she may quietly shake his/her head, show negative emotions or facial expressions, or un-affirming body language which impacts other members. The invisible Saboteur may purposefully slow the amount of work being performed, roadblock efforts or scuttle necessary information to impede progress. The impact of these hidden efforts is only seen after a period of time and the damage detected.

An Isolate Entrepreneur does not sabotage a project, instead, he/she leaves the team to pursue other interests. The departure can impact the project due to timing or the loss of a key person and knowledge. The Isolate Entrepreneur continues to support the project, albeit, less enthusiastically, until the next opportunity is found. The Isolate Entrepreneur may transfer to another part of the company, leave for another position or start his/her own company. Transferring to another part of the company is the best of the three scenarios since the brain-trust and connections are still available. Moving to another position or starting a separate company could cause additional loss of knowledge if the Isolate Entrepreneur recruits former colleagues to the new position.


Four follower types exist: Proactive, Die-hard Loyalist, Sheep and Isolate. Teams consist of the different types. A leader’s job is to know the various types within his/her team and leverage the benefits of each type. Identifying which team member fits which category can be tricky because the boundaries around each type may not be well defined and members may exhibit traits of more than one follower category.

Additionally, members may exhibit different traits based on the situation and the leader’s skills. Under a domineering leader, a Proactive may be less vocal and willing to ask questions. A Die-hard Loyalist may cower from fear more than demonstrate genuine loyalty. Sheep may come and go quickly. Isolates may exhibit exaggerated negative traits. Under an emotionally distant leader, all will react differently still.

By understanding the different follower types, an astute leader realizes one leadership style does not fit all people for all situations and circumstances. The leader will adapt to the people, the situation and the mission to be accomplished.

I welcome your comments and thoughts. Please enter them below.

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