The Courageous Follower – The Book


Many significant failures—from FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina to the recent economic collapse—could have been prevented or mitigated if those lower in the hierarchy were successful at communicating to leaders the risks they saw in the system. Ira Chaleff’s Courageous Follower model has facilitated healthy upward information flow in organizations for over 15 years. The Harvard Business Review called Chaleff a pioneer in the emerging field of followership—this new edition shares his latest thinking on an increasingly vital topic.

The updated third edition of The Courageous Follower includes a new chapter, “The Courage to Speak to the Hierarchy.” Much of Chaleff’s model is based on followers having access to the leader. But today, followers can be handed questionable policies and orders that come from many levels above them—even from the other side of the world. Chaleff explores how they can respond effectively, particularly using the power now available through advances in communications technology.

Everyone is a follower at least some of the time. Chaleff strips away the passive connotations of that role and provides tools to help followers effectively partner with leaders. He provides rich guidance to leaders and boards on fostering a climate that encourages courageous followership. The results include increased support for leaders, reduced cynicism and organizations saved from serious missteps.

Table of Contents

  • Preface to the Third Edition
  • Preface
  • Introduction: The Five Dimensions of Courageous Followership
  • 1: The Dynamics of the Leader-Follower Relationship
  • 2: The Courage to Assume Responsibility (read)
  • 3: The Courage to Serve
  • 4: The Courage to Challenge
  • 5: The Courage to Participate in Transformation
  • 6: The Courage to Take Moral Action
  • 7: The Courage to Speak to the Hierarchy
  • 8: The Courage to Listen to Followers
  • Epilogue
  • Meditation on Followership (view)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index
  • About the Author

© 2009 by Ira Chaleff, All rights reserved. Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 3rd Edition (October 27, 2009). Language: English

ISBN-13 & ASIN Codes

Paperback (288 pages)
978-1605092737 (BK)
978-1458756732 (Large print)
978-1605095820 (ePub, NOOk)
978-1605092744 (PDF)
B00BYGU8EW (Kindle)
Audio (9 hrs 20 mins)
ASIN: B009XJQX1Y (Audible)

Featured Chapter


The Courage to Assume Responsibility

Pages 35-43

THE MOST FREQUENT COMPLAINT I hear from leaders is that they would like the members of their team to assume more responsibility for the organization and initiate ideas and action on their own. While there are often very good reasons team members don’t do this, embedded in either the leader’s style or the organizational culture, it is interesting to hear that most leaders want their staff to take more initiative. They don’t want to be the only one leading. Recent research on courageous follower behaviors shows that, although each of the behaviors is valued, the courage to assume responsibility is as valued by leaders as the other four behaviors in the model combined. Examining our preparedness to exercise this responsibility is a crucial platform for moving toward partnership with a leader.

When I was at the University of California at Berkeley in the early sixties, a confrontation between the police and students erupted over the subject of free speech. The confrontation happened in the student plaza while the ad hoc student leadership and the administration negotiated the issues elsewhere. I was one of the hundreds of followers supporting the student leadership. By nightfall hundreds of police and thousands of students on both sides of the issue had amassed. The atmosphere was growing ugly, with stink bombs and epithets being hurled at the demonstrators. It looked like the helmeted police would charge into the demonstrators to break up the sit-in. The crowd included a person who was blind and children. I was concerned that people would be hurt.

Joan Baez, the folk singer and political activist, was performing at the Greek theater on another part of the campus that evening. She had recently achieved national fame. I called the hotel where celebrities stay in Berkeley and left her a message describing the situation. I asked her to come to the site of the confrontation, expressing the hope that by having a prominent figure present more restraint would be exercised and violence could be prevented. Though she didn’t know me, she responded and appeared a little while later. While she made her presence known, each side restrained itself until a settlement was reached and everyone voluntarily dispersed. I learned the power of taking initiative without formal authority.

Unfortunately, I have not always assumed that much responsibility. Recently, I found myself disappointed by the quality of meetings my company held. The meetings consumed a lot of expense and time as people came from two continents, yet they seemed to cover the same ground each year in an uninspiring format. I complained about it to the organization’s founder and president but did nothing else to change it.

Then I had the opportunity to use a self-assessment instrument and was startled to find how disaffected I had become with the president. This flew in the face of my self-image as a positive, contributing team member. I was challenged to assume responsibility for the situation rather than complain while it deteriorated.

I drafted a memo to the other participants in the company meetings and told the president that I intended faxing it to each of them. He supported the initiative. The memo explained what a terrific opportunity I saw in our annual meetings and offered a creative idea for taking better advantage of the meetings. I asked for their feedback. Nearly all replied, several with ideas of their own that I felt improved on mine. Out of this process, and to the president’s delight, we constructed a new, stimulating, and valuable format for part of the meeting.

By assuming responsibility for our organization and its activities, we can develop a true partnership with our leader and sense of community with our group. This is how we maximize our own contribution to the common purpose. Assuming responsibility requires courage because we then become responsible for the outcomes—we can’t lay the blame for our action or inaction elsewhere.

But before we can assume responsibility for the organization, we must assume responsibility for ourselves. I had to recognize my disaffection and do something to change it. I had to assume responsibility for my own growth. We cannot remain static ourselves and expect to improve the organization.

In this chapter, I explore the responsibility a courageous follower takes for self-development and for the development of the organization. Though we coordinate our activities as appropriate, we also take actions independently of the leader to forward our common purpose.


Assuming responsibility for our personal development begins with self-examination. We cannot know in which direction we need to grow until we first know where we are. Courageous followers do not wait for performance reviews (strained events that these usually are anyway); they assess their own performance.

In addition to evaluating their job “competencies,” courageous followers also examine the more illusive subject of their relationships with teammates and leaders. If charity begins at home, development in the relationship between followers and leaders begins in a follower’s vestibule; a follower’s issues with authority are the other side of a leader’s issues with power.

Our relationship to authority is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to be fully aware of our beliefs and postures vis-à-vis leaders. For our entire childhoods, at home and school, those in authority had tremendous power to dictate to us. We learned to survive by complying with, avoiding or resisting those authorities. The strategies we adopted became patterns for future behavior and influence our attitudes toward our current leaders.

Most work environments in adulthood reinforce our childhood relationship to authority. We must strive for greater awareness of our own beliefs, attitudes, and patterns of behavior toward authority, and look at their consequences. For example:

Challenging a specific leader on a specific subject may be healthy, but a pattern of challenging all leaders on all subjects is not. A rebellious, alienated follower will never earn the trust to meaningfully influence a leader

A follower’s deferential language and demeanor toward a leader may be appropriate, but strained subservience or chronic resentment are not. A follower who is too subservient and eager to please authority cannot provide the balance a leader requires to use power well.

Clamming up when a leader interrupts us in a raised voice may have been necessary at home or school, but it serves us and the leader poorly now. Tolerating disrespect for our voice and views will reinforce the behavior and weaken the relationship.

It is important to move beyond viewing a leader as a good parent or bad parent, a good king or bad king, a hero or villain in our world. If we become aware of such attitudes, our challenge is to learn to relate to the leader on a different basis. By paying attention to how we interpret the leader’s actions, to the feelings that interpretation evokes in us, and to the behaviors we employ to cope with those feelings, we can loosen our grasp on the mechanisms we once needed for survival. We can begin to examine what other choices we have as adults for relating effectively to authority.


There are different ways to represent our individual style of relating to leaders. Useful models for doing this can be found in the works by Robert Kelley and Gene Boccialetti, cited in the bibliography. In my workshops, I use a two-axis representation derived from the core of the Courageous Follower model that participants in workshops find helpful in understanding their strengths and potential growth needs.

The two critical dimensions of courageous followership are the degree of support a follower gives a leader and the degree to which the follower is willing to challenge the leader’s behavior or policies if these are endangering the organization’s purpose or undermining its values. This holds true at all levels of leadership and followership. We will examine both of these dimensions in depth in subsequent chapters. At this point, however, it is useful to reflect on where you place yourself in this matrix of follower behaviors.

The possible combinations of these two dimensions produce four quadrants that can depict the posture you tend to assume in relation to leaders. There is variance, of course, depending on the leader to whom you are relating. But, if you change quadrants radically based on the leader’s temperament and style, you are ceding too much power to the leader to determine your professional behavior. It is useful to identify your core tendency or natural position in relationship to authority at this point in your personal development. Then you can chart a growth path for yourself.

The four possible quadrants in this model of followership style are

  • Quadrant I: high support, high challenge
  • Quadrant II: high support, low challenge
  • Quadrant III: low support, high challenge
  • Quadrant IV: low support, low challenge


A follower operating from the first quadrant gives vigorous support to a leader but is also willing to question the leader’s behavior or policies. This individual could be said to be a true partner with the leader and displays many of the characteristics identified with courageous followership in this book. Even within this quadrant, of course, there is room for growth as one can become stronger and more skillful in both dimensions.


This is the quadrant from which most leaders love to have their followers operate. Leaders can count heavily on followers who operate from this profile to do what is needed to get the job done and not require much over sight or explanation. However, if the leader begins to go down a wrong path, these are not the followers who are likely to tell the leader so or, if they do, they are not likely to pursue the matter if the leader rebuffs their attempts. Growth for those tending to this style of followership lies in the direction of being more willing to challenge a leader’s problematic actions or policies and learning to do so effectively and productively.


Surrounding every leader are one or two individuals whose deference is quite low and who do not hesitate to tell the leader or anyone else in the group, exactly what they think of his or her actions or policies. These are potentially important people to have in the group as they balance the tendency of the rest of the group to go long with what seems acceptable while harboring reservations. However, because these individuals do not display equal energy in supporting the leader’s initiatives, they marginalize themselves. Their criticism becomes predictable and tiresome,and the leader finds ways to shut them out. Growth for individuals who operate from this style of followership lies in the direction of increasing their actual and visible support for the leader’s initiatives that forward the common purpose.


Any group has a certain number of people who do an honest day’s work for a day’s pay but don’t go beyond the minimum expected of them. There are often legitimate reasons for this. They may be single parents whose priority is leaving at 3:30 to pick up their children from day care, graduate students whose priority is excelling in their course work or volunteers who can give only a few hours a week. However,it is difficult to advance their careers or make significant contributions to the organization while operating from this quadrant. When they are ready to give more priority to their participation in the group or organization, they must begin to raise their level of support for the leader and begin to earn the standing to also credibly challenge policies and behavior.

The following is a summary of the attitudes and behaviors likely to be displayed by individuals relating to leaders from each of these quadrants.

While these tendencies can be measured, you probably already have a sense of how you tend to operate, at least in relationship to the current leaders with whom you interact. As you read further, keep in mind this self-assessment and the direction in which you feel you would like to grow. You can then consider and test the ideas and suggestions you will encounter to help you do so.

The Courageous Follower - Front Cover
Recent International Work

Ira and Rosa Maria with the Cuestamoras managers in Costa Rica after the bilingual Courageous Follower class (October 2016)

Meditations on Followership

FOR ME, BECOMING A COURAGEOUS FOLLOWER, like becoming a good human being, is both a daily and a lifelong task. Visualizing a desired state helps to realize it. I share this meditation as one visualization of the state I aspire to. You may want to refer to it from time to time. (Ira Chaleff)

Click on any image to view slides’ gallery or download pdf file.

Review by Serge J. Van Steenkiste

The Fine Balancing Act of the Courageous Follower

In The Courageous Follower, Chaleff focuses on the relationship existing between the formal leadership of an organization and the followers, all the people who ultimately report to the leadership team directly or indirectly. Chaleff also examines the interaction among followers within the leadership team in their relationship with the ultimate leader of the organization.

Like Peter Drucker in The Essential Drucker, Ira Chaleff acknowledges right away that leadership may be informal and distributed throughout an organization. Knowledge workers, who are considered partners rather than employees, can only be helped. The close supervision of knowledge workers is often illusory because of their unique expertise.

Chaleff is conscious of the potential negative baggage associated with the word follower by making clear that a follower is not the same as a subordinate. Chaleff recognizes that being a courageous follower can be a risky proposition. Contingency plans are in any circumstances a necessity, whether the follower is courageous or not, in a fast-changing global economy. However, a respectful individual who is not afraid to speak and act on the truth, despite the inequities in the relationship between employee and employer, is a force to be reckoned with.

Not everybody is called upon to become and remain a courageous follower. Chaleff divides followers into four profiles that he calls respectively, implementer, resource, individualist and partner. Only the partner, who sooner rather than later dares to challenge on a regular basis the orthodoxy of the leadership team in a constructive, non-confrontational mode, can be counted on as a courageous follower. Readers cannot conclude from this assessment that the contribution of the remaining profiles should be downplayed. However, working closely with an existing or new leader open to the feedback from courageous followers is on its own an excellent growth opportunity. Chaleff reminds his audience that well-balanced professionals should take ownership of their career and look for growth opportunities both inside and outside their organization.

Reasonably, Chaleff recommends that the follower take an incremental, step-by-step approach to becoming a courageous follower. There is no silver bullet for developing the profile of a courageous follower. Credibility must be earned during the process. As Chaleff states, service is an art and art is developed through commitment and discipline.

Passion for the job, initiative, buy-in, loyalty, trust, open mind and communication skills are some of the key ingredients in the establishment and development of a relationship based on courage . These ingredients take on an even greater importance when a conflict arises between different leaders. Often, these adversaries put pressure on their respective constituencies to build a strong alliance against the “enemy.”

Courage cannot lead to disobedience unless special circumstances such as the preservation of life and the respect of the law are deemed important enough to supersede the human tendency to follow orders. Leaving the organization will sometimes be the only option left to the courageous follower to maintain his/her integrity after having exhausted other options. However, courage does not need to be absolute. The courageous follower could decide to stay after trying in vain to convince the leadership team or leader about the perceived right course to follow.

Courageous following is a two-way street. A great leader is not afraid to develop courageous followers because of his/her sense of self-worth. Similarly, the courageous follower is willing and able to directly or indirectly comfort and confront the leader, at the right time and at the right place. The courageous follower should not abuse his/her access to the leader. Otherwise, access will diminish over time Developing this talent pool can be critical to the success and/or survival or an organization because of the dangers of groupthink, self-censorship and lack of concern for legal niceties. Unfortunately, a common response is to devalue the individuals taking the stand with potentially disastrous consequences as the recent wave of corporate scandals convincingly demonstrates.

Courageous followers, conscious of the importance of buy-in, are flexible enough to see their ideas tested on a small scale with good measurements before a full-blown implementation is considered. Furthermore, courageous followers offer if possible at least three different options with their respective pros and cons to get this buy-in. Acting along these lines encourages consensus building in pursuing success.

Although leaders receive much value from courageous followers, leaders also need to keep their channels of communication open with their peers as Chaleff rightly points out. A leader’s peers, especially those who do not belong to the same professional circles, can provide him/her with an extremely valuable service in further refining the leadership skills in a multitude of settings. Alternatively, an outside facilitator can be called in to coach the leader.

Changing a leader’s behavior is usually more challenging than altering his/her policies for these people gravitating around the leader. In all these interactions, the negative feedback should not be directed at the leader himself/herself in order to keep communication channels open. When genuine transformation happens, it should be acknowledged and celebrated.

The Courageous Follower - Front Cover


The Courageous Follower - Self-Assesement

In junction with the Third Edition of The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff is offering an online self-assessment of your followership style. It is available through the publisher Berrett-Koehler, as an online streamed application (not downloaded), limited one-year subscription. The test can be retaken up to four times in a 12 month period to track your developmental progress.


The Courageous Follower contains remarkable insight and a lot of practical advice that will be of enormous benefit to followers, and maybe even more benefit to leaders.

General Walter Ulmer, Jr.
Former President of the Center for Creative Leadership

If we are going to reinvent our government it will require that our agencies be filled with both courageous leaders and courageous followers. Paying more attention to the follower end of the equation is long overdue.

Al Gore
Vice President of the United States from 1993 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton

We are all leaders or followers-or both. The Courageous Follower is a comprehensive guide that gives us the tools to manage the virtues, values, and responsibilities of those roles.

Scientific American
American magazine that brings its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology

Especially effective is the discussion of leaders in crisis. Highly recommended.

Library Journal
The most trusted and respected publication for the library community.

The Courageous Follower is a godsend. Chaleff tackles business transformation with grace, and offers real life solutions for even the most sticky situations.

Independent Bookselling Today
Monthly 4 pages newsletter by Donna Paz

The subject of followership has long needed attention. In the corporate world, we have a “star system” which gives extraordinary awards to leaders but does not fully recognize the contributions of followers. Yet in one way or another we are all followers. This book is a guide for all of us.

Clair Ghylin
Retired Vice-President, Chevron USA

Business consultant Chaleff points out that most of us at different times are both leaders and followers. Many books, he notes, have explored and analyzed the former role but almost none the latter. Following is often stigmatized, he argues, as docility, weakness or failure to excel. His handbook shows that a courageous follower can be an enormous asset to a leader, and he pinpoints five dimensions in which that courage can be demonstrated: assuming responsibility, serving, challenging, participating in transformation and, given the worst-case scenario, leaving. The book should be of value for those working in businesses where “committeemanship,” or team playing, is now the rule in executive ranks.

Publishers Weekly
International news website of book publishing and bookselling

Countless books have been written to describe the qualities and responsibilities of the leader, but democracy cannot survive unless followers also behave responsibly. This book fills a large gap in any organization’s library.

Barber Conable, Jr.
Former President, The World Bank

The Courageous Follower – The Book: How to Order

The Courageous Follower – Order from Publisher

The Courageous Follower - Front Cover

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