Leadership and followership for product manager

My Exploration | Ted | 2019/04/28

Leadership is not defined by power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those who are led.

— Mary Parker-Follett


In china, product manager in IT company is a position with little executive power but lots of responsibility. Even a new employee who just graduates from college could be a product manager. Actually that causes a kind of psychological illusion to product manager themselves that product managers have a final call with a power of leadership. In fact, that kind of “manager” probably do not have much influence on others. The team members are coming from different departments, such as users experience department, IT development department. Each of them has a direct manager having the most influence on subordinates. So if the product managers value the title too much, he or she probably would make many mistakes by controlling too much. Therefore, lots of task conflicts and social conflicts would rise between product manager and other members.  

Here are my advices for those product “manager”.

  • 1. Before learning how to be a leader, you would better learn how to be a follower.
  • 2. Reach an agreement regarding to accountability with stakeholders.
  • 3. Want leadership? Earn it.

How to be a good follower.

Following is not just do whatever others tell you, but following others who are trustworthy in his or her professional field. You should find out who could lead you to deal with specific problems. That’s because nowadays projects are becoming more and more complicated, leading to varying multi-disciplinary specialists coming from different organizations. For example, product managers should not consider design specification too much instead being a follower who bear a bottom line in mind.

The bottom line of product is significant. You should keep it in mind and develop asking skill for reaching a consensus with the “leader” with open-minded attitude. For example, if the output of designers goes too far, you should ask the designer some question about how this design could help achieve the product success. So working with smart people with high cooperation is quite crucial.

We could regard the process of acting as follower purposely as followership development. In fact, based on empirical research, Manning and Robertson make use of the classic leadership behavior model to develop a three-factor model of followership including relations behaviors, task behaviors, and change behaviors and conclude that followership and leadership are not fundamentally different and leaders need to build on and develop out the followership skill for cultivating their leadership skills

Don’t be foolish for taking all the accountability.

Product manager is accountable for the product outcomes but it does not mean the they should take all the accountability. In fact, because of its intermediary role, product manger is easy to be blamed by others, causing the decrease of credibility and other’s shirking responsibility. Therefore, it is important to identify the accountability and make it public.

Besides, we should bear it in mind that the product success comes from team work. Making sure all the processes run smoothly is everyone’s responsibility.

Want leadership? Earn it.

When a project requires a dedicated and temporary leadership, it is your opportunity to earn it. we regard that leadership developed from that multi-disciplinary process as horizontal leadership.

However, if the direct leader was too busy or far located to keep the pace with the project, the horizontal leadership is hardly to undertake in general. That is because the horizontal leader unable to make the same promise and influence over career to the other team members, resulting in impairing the impact of worker outcomes such as motivation, work-related attitudes and commitment. Besides, other team members probably would confused that who is actually in charge the project if the interaction between the two leadership roles is not transparent and understandable to the team.

So here are my advice for that:

  • 1. Make things clear to the group — who is charged with the project.
  • 2. Help the direct leader keep the pace with the project.
  • 3. Obtain achievements and make it visible with the least effort.

Lastly, here is a conceptual model to better understand the process as follows:


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Epitropaki, O, Kark, R, Mainemelis, C, & Lord, RG 2017, ‘Leadership and followership identity processes: A multilevel review’ The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 104–129.

Higgs, M & Rowland, D 2003, ‘Is change changing? An examination of approaches to change and its leadership’ WORKING PAPER SERIES-HENLEY MANAGEMENT COLLEGE HWP, no. 13, Retrieved from www: henleymc.ac.uk.

Malakyan, PG 2014, ‘Followership in leadership studies: A case of leader–follower trade approach’ Journal of Leadership Studies, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 6–22.

Manning, T & Robertson, B 2016, ‘A three factor model of followership: part 3–research on followership, a three factor followership framework and practical implications’ Industrial and Commercial Training, vol. 48, no. 8, pp. 400–408.

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Uhl-Bien, M, Riggio, RE, Lowe, KB, & Carsten, MK 2014, ‘Followership theory: A review and research agenda’ The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 83–104.

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