On Leadership and Followership

These are ideas that I elaborated some time ago in a completely different context, but in an election year, they seemed apropos.

Not everyone is, or can be, or even should be, a leader. What is a ship at sea full of nothing but captains? Everyone wanting to give the orders and nobody wanting to follow them? Chaos. Deadlock. The world needs followers. It needs them in greater numbers than it needs leaders, in fact, because it isn’t actually possible to be a leader without followers. You’ve got to have at least one follower, or there’s no one for you to lead.

Now, I know the word “leadership” has become so bloated in its meaning that it is now applied to almost any positive item on a person’s resume. But, in my view, leadership is not selling the most insurance policies, or finding your company a cheaper source of ink, or even developing a new algorithm. Nor is it finding a path over the mountain, crossing the finish line first, or being the first on your block to buy an electric car, or even being the first person in the world to understand that unchecked human population growth is a threat to every living being on the planet. A leader, in my book, is the person who can stand up and say, “I think this is what we should do,” and have most or all of the other people in the room stand up, too, and say, “All right, then, let’s go!”

In broad terms, leaders are the people who shoulder the responsibility of making decisions for a group of people, or for choosing a course of action that their followers then pursue. Do that, and you’re performing the role of a leader, but if those people are only doing what you tell them because of authority vested in you by some third party, I’m still not impressed with your “leadership” ability, even if I am impressed with your decisions. This is because real leaders have the power to rally the troops, to move people, to motivate, and even to inspire.  Because leadership is all about the effect a person has on the ones who follow.  Which brings us back to followers.

The world needs followers, as I said, and more than that, it needs good followers. The first responsibility of a follower is to choose carefully whom to follow. Because a leader can accomplish nothing, good or bad, without followers, and leaders can definitely be either good or bad – and not just with respect to how much of the magic spark they have that makes them leaders. Hitler was a good leader in the sense of moving people, but he was not a good leader in the sense of where he led. A good leader must be an altruist, not an egoist. A good leader need not be charismatic; capable will do. She need not be eloquent, she must only be able to communicate, somehow, in a language her followers can understand. A good leader must have a worthy goal and a workable plan for getting there, but he need not be a visionary as long as he knows a good vision when he sees one. She need not know everything, as long as she knows enough to seek whatever knowledge is needed. He need not be wise as long as he is wise enough to listen to the wisdom of others. She need not have all the ideas, as long as she is open to ideas. And he need not be perfect as long as he can admit his mistakes and correct or learn from them.

And here I am going to introduce the concept of “followership.” Good followership means stepping into whatever task or role is given to you, and doing it to the best of your ability. Followers are the hands that shape, the backs that carry, the feet that march. Followers have the skills that actually get things done. Followers are potentially the sources of the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the ideas, sometimes even the words. A good follower is not a sheep; a good follower asks questions. A good follower uses his head. A good follower chooses a worthy leader and supports that leader. She anticipates the leader’s needs whenever possible. He is alert to problems, and, if he can’t solve them himself, communicates them to those who can. A good follower lets the leader know if she believes the leader is making a mistake. If the leader should stumble or lose faith, a good follower is there to comfort and reassure, because a good follower respects and appreciates the burden of responsibility the leader bears.

Followership isn’t even a word. It gets no recognition these days, except when it is, paradoxically, called “leadership.” Being a “leader” seems to be synonymous with everything good, while being a “follower” is somehow bad. But the truth is that leaders and followers are quite distinct, and both are necessary. Followers are, in fact, absolutely essential to every organized human activity. A mediocre leader will do in a pinch. You can even soldier along for a while with just a written plan, but without followers nothing will happen at all. And good followers are worth their weight in gold.

What do you think? Are you a leader? or a follower?