Stories of following and leading
: identities and followership journeys during succession in UK universities

  • Samantha Ross

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


Succession, leadership and identity scholars have frequently attended to ‘leader’ experiences in their research. This is despite the impact of succession on everyday processes and staff working lives; the recognition that leadership is a joint process which unfolds among many individuals and relationships within an organisation; and the centrality of identity to staff as well as successors. Underpinned by followership theory, this thesis aims to rebalance the understanding of succession by soliciting staff and successor stories of and leading identities and behaviours during the change journey.

Grounded in constructionism, this research used 121 semi-structured interviews with 104 research participants who were professional services staff in 41 UK universities. A narrative approach to interviewing and analysis was employed to capture staff and successor experiences of succession. Thematic analysis was used across the large qualitative data set to identify findings related to the succession, identity and followership literatures.

The findings highlighted the shortcomings of succession planning within universities, advocating instead for an approach to succession which recognises the identity and behavioural transitions which staff and successors navigate during the change. A diversity of succession stakeholders, some in the form of ghosts, are identified. The findings contribute to the growing support for constructionist perspectives of leadership by showing how individuals in organisations lead, follow, and engage in different versions of their identities, regardless of their formal hierarchical role. This thesis also demonstrates a connection between following and the vision and pursuit of aspirational selves, evidencing how staff and successors contribute to the development of these selves in one another.
Date of Award14 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorRuth Woodfield (Supervisor) & Sandra Daniilova Romenska (Supervisor)


  • Following
  • Leading
  • Identity
  • Storytelling
  • Ghost
  • Qualitative
  • Succession
  • Followership

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  • Full text open

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