Are Followers an Endangered Species?

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

Traditionally, leadership has been defined by the existence of followers.  If followers exist, you’re a leader.  Or at least that’s how it’s been traditionally understood.  However, if that’s the case, if we all become leaders, do we all cease being leaders because we have no followers?  Is a leader someone who can “get” others to follow?  Or is a leader something more?

Many days I am reminded of the challenges inherent in communication because of nuances in the meaning of words.  Lately, in a group setting, a friend made a comment that I took issue with around leadership.

“People don’t want to be managed, they want to be led.”

My friends comment, I am sure, aligned very well with the idea that leadership is influence.  People don’t want to be put in little boxes and managed like a resource or a task.  They prefer to be influenced to make free choices about their engagement without manipulation.

Agreeing with my friend and her meaning, I still disagreed with the statement.  The words, lead, influence, and persuade can all feel like manipulation or coercion to me.  Yes, I know coercion means force, but when an individual perceives the consequences of an action are greater than they can stand, they might feel “forced” to do something.

Simon Sinek said that we only have two ways to get others to act: inspiration or manipulation. When inspired, people bring energy, excitement, creativity, passion, commitment, loyalty and a host of other positives to any effort.  When manipulated, at best (for the leader) they bring those same attitudes, at least until they realize their mistake. When they feel sold, manipulated or when their inspiration wanes, so does their effort.

Did you enter the workforce planning to be a follower?  Positional leaders need followers.  You’re not “in” the lead unless you have people who are also in position to follow.  If everyone became a leader today, where would all the followers come from?

Every day, character-based leaders, those who lead from who they are, rather than from a position, freely choose to submit to the leadership of others.  Those others may be in positions of leadership or they may not.  Those others may simply have a better idea, or be more qualified, but they have no “position” of authority.  They’re not “in charge.”

We can all be character-based leaders, leading from who we are.  We don’t “become” a follower when we choose to join.  We don’t change who we are by choosing to subordinate to someone in order to achieve a goal.  The United States was formed on principles like these.   We are equals, taking different roles to accomplish shared goals.  When we become leaders, on the inside, as part of our character, we don’t stop enlisting, supporting or serving.  In fact, we may enlist more, support more or serve more once we accept responsibility for our own leadership. (For more on this, see The Three Promises of Character-based Leadership.)

Our world needs more great leaders.  No, we don’t need more people in positions of authority.  Rather we need more character-based leaders both in and out of positions of authority.  Be a leader.  Choose to make a difference.  Join someone else or start something on your own.  You don’t need permission.

We can only all be leaders when we accept personal responsibility and choose to enlist of our own informed, free will.


Photo © Sergey Galushko – Fotolia.com

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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

cjstewartok  |  05 Apr 2012  |  Reply

So Mike, let’s tell the rest of what I said. “It is misguided to believe that we can manage people. We can manage things, but not people. People don’t want to be managed, in fact, people hate to be managed. People want to be led.”

Now, granted, there are two types of leaders – controlling leaders and empowering leaders. Controlling leaders are basically manipulative, don’t trust people, and in leadership positions for their own gain. Empowering leaders, those you refer to as character-based leaders, trust and believe in people and want to inspire and empower those under their leadership to grow and become the best they can be. It is up to empowering leaders to cast the vision and rally people behind the vision by showing them what they have to gain personally and professionally in achieving the vision.

The best leaders develop their leadership skills. ALL of us have leadership ability that needs to be developed. We need leaders in every aspect of life and in every profession. We cannot each lead in every aspect of our lives, so no, there is no chance that if we all lead we will no longer have followers.

In fact, we all need to lead where we can based on our talents, skills, experience & education, and we all need to follow where we cannot or choose not to lead. I won’t ever be a pastor, so I look to my pastor. I won’t ever be a doctor, an elected official, a superintendent, etc. so I look to others for that and take their lead. I am a follower in many areas of my life, but I lead my life, I lead my family along with my husband and I lead my company.

And don’t even try to manage me – but cast a vision for me to participate in and grow from and I will follow.

Back atcha Mike. Thanks for the conversation.
Cynthia Stewart, EverMore Services

Mike Henry  |  06 Apr 2012  |  Reply

Cynthia, it was a great interchange both at the Lead Change Tulsa breakfast and here. We all do want to be part of a vision that is greater than just ourselves. We all do want to either join a great cause or create our own. We’re looking for leaders. Our world needs leaders to stand up for their “thing” and go do something about it. Those of us who share an interest in that “thing” can join in, freely, without becoming a “follower.”

One of the great things about the character-based leadership movement that I see happening all over the Internet (and maybe the world) is that we all instinctively “get-it” even though we say it different ways. “Leader” isn’t a class; it’s a role. We all need people of character to step into that role, earn our influence and our energetic participation and go make the world better.

Thanks so much for being part of my journey. I appreciate it.

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