Leading the Four Follower Types – Sheep and Isolates- Part 4

In our previous article, Understanding the Four Follower Types – Part 2, we described the types of followers a leader is likely to encounter in any team. Leaders must adapt their leadership style to derive the best from each type. Leaders need to be more adept in their skills because different situations and follower types require different leadership skills or approaches.

This article is the fourth 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.

The four follower types we discussed are:

  • Proactive – actively participates in and aligns with the mission of the effort, generates ideas, challenges thoughts, and is interested in overall improvement. The Proactive’s loyalty is to the mission.
  • Die-hard Loyalist – enthusiastically embraces the leader, his/her ideas and goals, and follows the leader simply because of the leader. His/her loyalty is with the leader without regard to the mission.
  • Sheep – primarily interested in the work because it interests him/her and because he/she is getting paid. A sheep’s loyalty is to his/her work and pay, not the mission or leader. If the project fails, he/she simply moves onto the next pasture that pays and provides work.
  • Isolate – a Proactive or Die-hard Loyalist evolves into an Isolate because he/she becomes disenfranchised. The Proactive becomes weary due to the lack of idea acceptance or appreciation. The Die-hard Loyalist becomes disillusioned by the leader and has no place to direct his/her loyalty.

Note: These four follower types do not have hard-n-fast edges. Each follower can be a combination of traits. We present them here as if followers fall into one of the four categories, but that is rarely the case. Followers may exhibit traits from several categories. An astute leader will recognize the dominate category trait and be able to adapt the leadership style(s) accordingly.

In the article, Leading the Four Follower Types – Proactive and Die-hard Loyalists – Part 3, we described leadership conditions and concerns for leading the Proactives and Die-hard Loyalists. In this article, we’ll finish the discussion for leading the Sheep and Isolates.

Leading the SheepSheep Follower Type, #millennialleadership, millennial leadership

Sheep are motivated by the work to be done and the remuneration behind it. He/she is not necessarily loyal to the mission or the leader. A leader needs to understand that. To motivate sheep, a leader delegates work to the sheep. In many cases, the sheep work autonomously and moves to the next piece of work when the last task finishes.

To lead the sheep, the leader must outline the work to be done, provide the order of accomplishment and lay the plan out for the sheep. The sheep continues to move forward moving from one pasture of work to the next pasture. Once the project or mission is complete, the sheep will move onto the next leader who has work for them. If that is the current leader, great. If not, no emotions are lost moving to the next assignment.

Sheep rarely become Isolates. Sheep usually don’t offer suggestions or ideas like the Proactives do. He/she does not require the recognition of the leader as much as the Die-hard Loyalist does. In fact, he/she doesn’t really care who the leader is. As long as the work is interesting and there is enough to do, the Sheep will continue to follow. If the leader leaves, doesn’t acknowledge the sheep or in some other fashion, disenfranchises a Sheep, the Sheep simply shrugs his/her shoulders and moves on. There is no emotional attachment to the current situation.

The onus is on the leader to provide the work and direction and the Sheep will simply follow accomplishing the work set before them.

Please note, we are not calling the Sheep mindless automatons. He/she can be quite an intelligent and passionate person. He/she may even be very energetic and outgoing. What differentiates Sheep from the rest of the followers is the loyalty factor. As leaders, we need Sheep on our team, as much as we need Proactives and Die-hard Loyalists.

In many ways, because of the number of re-organizations, projects, life-circumstances, mergers/acquisitions and layoffs we have experienced, we might be considered a Sheep. While it is always great to have an empathetic and effective leader, we are more about the work than loyalty to a person. It is always good to be involved in a mission in which we can align but paying the bills has now trumped the missions. It would be super exciting to be involved in a mission with exciting work and great pay. If that were to occur, we’d be Proactive Sheep. Bah-ahh.

Leading the Isolate#millennialleadership, millennial leadership

The Isolate follower will be the toughest follower the leader manages. Isolates already have something against the team, mission or leader. An Isolate can be one of two flavors: saboteur or entrepreneur. In either case, the Isolate can be quietly biding his/her time until he/she leaves or outwardly caustic and troublesome.

Isolate Saboteur

The saboteur seeks to damage the leader or mission by underperforming, undermining the leader, purposely creating low quality results, delaying progress, or causing a ruckus through irritating or caustic behavior. He/she may use insinuation, snide remarks, negative body language, disrespect or a myriad of techniques to cause division within the team. He/she may openly undermine the leader or his/her reputation causing doubts in other minds about the leader’s ability or vision.

The leader needs to confront this type of Isolate. The leader must suppress any prejudice or preconceived ideas about the issues the Isolate may have. The leader should initiate an open conversation, preferably in private, where the Isolate can voice his/her concerns. The leader must clearly state there is no retribution or reprimand for voicing the concerns. The leader must listen carefully and without interruption. The leader must be prepared for personal insults and accusations and not react no matter how true or untrue the statement is. Any infraction of these rules by the leader will only exacerbate the problem rather than solve it.

Why is this important?

First, in many cases the Isolate simply needs to express these issues and feel he/she has been heard. Many times over our career, we have employed this technique and seen the animosity simply melt away and the situation resolved. We didn’t have to take any action. In many cases, the Isolate became a Die-hard Loyalist. In several occasions, the “Isolate” was the supervisor and we were the “employee.” We weren’t even perceived as the leader, yet, a simple conversation to clear the air where we only listened caused the other party to turn his/her adverse attitude to becoming our champion.

As an example, we were new to consulting. A previous boss hired us and negotiated the rate for our services. Shortly after starting, we were reorganized under a new supervisor who happened to be our peer at the previous employer. He struggled to pay our monthly invoices. The payments were delayed longer and longer. Finally, we decided to ask the supervisor why the payments were late, especially since the late payments caused us to pay our bills late. After much discussion and listening, the supervisor (ex-peer) blurted out our monthly invoice total was more than his take-home pay and he, being the supervisor, wasn’t comfortable with that. We tried the logical approach of stating we had to pay our taxes, benefits and travel expenses from our gross income leaving the net much less than his take-home. He said he understood all that, but it was simply the number that caused him the problem. We blinked our eyes and said, “What if we invoice you twice per month cutting the invoice in half? Would that work?” He thought and said, “Why Yes! That’ll do it.” We ended up with a Die-hard Loyalist and got paid more quickly on our invoices.

Second, the leader might uncover a general concern pervasive throughout the team but no one else has the nerve to bring it to the leader’s attention. The discussion might illuminate a blind spot the leader has, a habit which undermines his/her ability to lead, or a mannerism which annoys the team members, etc. As an example, we’ve all experienced the leader where everything must be done immediately. The team members know the panic mode is not necessary, but everyone fears mentioning the undue stress levels. Through a discussion with an Isolate, the leader might realize he is impacting his/her own success.

Listening is key to converting an Isolate Saboteur. Sometimes, the root of the issue comes out quickly and sometimes it takes a protracted conversation. The leader must remain calm, impartial, control all emotions and negative urges, and listen for the gems to resolve the problem.

Of course, not all Isolate Saboteurs can be converted back into Proactives or Die-hard Isolates. In these cases, the leader must take actions to remove the Saboteur from the team to eliminate further drama and disruptions. The actions or attitudes of the Saboteur is noticed by other team members and impacts their ability to produce or form as a team. This environment drains everyone, sometimes converting other followers to Isolates because of the perceived inept leadership.

Isolate Entrepreneur

The Isolate Entrepreneur usually evolves from the Proactive whose thoughts and ideas have been shunned by the leader too many times. As a Proactive offers opinions the leader ignores, he/she loses respect or trust in the leader’s ability. An attitude begins to form by the Proactive can do a much better job than the leader. We know this evolution from first-hand knowledge as our ideas were unheeded by our leaders. We found ourselves becoming more negative and felt disrespected. More out of happenstance than planning, we found ourselves transferring to other opportunities. Looking back, we hope we didn’t disrupt the team too much from our negative attitudes.

Isolate Entrepreneur, while he/she might exhibit negative behavior, frequently leave to start his/her own endeavors or move into another area. He/she is looking for a position which nurtures his/her abilities and where his/her ideas are heard, if not implemented. Being heard and executing ideas motivates the Isolate Entrepreneur. He/she wants to point at a result and state it was his/her idea.

Die-hard Loyalists can slip into becoming an Isolate Entrepreneur. Because a Loyalist’s loyalty lies with the leader, when he/she becomes disenfranchised, his/her normal evolution would be toward the Isolate Saboteur. But, in some cases, the Loyalist may become an Isolate Entrepreneur, stick with team for a period of time and then leave to pursue his/her passion.

Regardless of the original follower type, an Isolate Entrepreneur can be won back into the fold through being heard. Once again, the leader needs to engage in a conversation and listen to the Entrepreneur. The leader can ask probing questions to elicit problem areas the Entrepreneur sees and invite him/her to suggestion solutions. The leader needs to listen impartially, without objection and consider the Entrepreneur’s suggestions. The leader, through questioning, should further probe suggestions, especially if the leaders knows additional information the Entrepreneur doesn’t. The goal is to have a mutual exchange of ideas with the attempt to develop a better solution overall.
The leader does not need to promise or infer the Entrepreneur’s ideas will be implemented. The leader does need to assure the Entrepreneur he/she will be taken seriously.

Concluding Isolate Thoughts

Let’s conclude our discussion of the Isolate in this manner:

  1. Isolates need to be heard
  2. Isolates need to feel respected
  3. Isolates may convert back to the team via a single discussion or over time. (he/she needs to rebuild trust in the leader)
  4. Isolates hold valuable information leaders need to know.
  5. Isolates will not divulge the information unless a leader listens intently, impartially and unemotionally
  6. Isolates won’t take the lead in re-establishing the relationship, the leader must.


Understanding follower types is essential to a leader’s success. Long gone are the days where “one-size-fit-all” or “my way or the highway”. Successful leaders meet their followers individually. They understand the follower, what motivates him/her and leads the person accordingly. An astute leader will look for traits and signs to identify a follower type.

The first question the leader needs to ask upon meeting a follower is, “Where is this person’s loyalty?”

If the person is loyal to the mission, he/she will exhibit more Proactive traits.

If the person is loyal to the leader, he/she will exhibit Die-hard Loyalist traits.

If the person is loyal to the pay, he/she will exhibit Sheep-like traits.

And, if the person is not loyal to any of the above, he/she will exhibit Isolate traits. As the leader listens to the Isolate, the leader can endeavor to bring the follower back into the fold.

We’d like to hear your comments on our opinions expressed here. Provide stories of your experiences as they align or don’t align with our thoughts.

Copyright © American Eagle Group

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