Courageously Following Where No Man Has Gone Before

by  John E. Smith  |  Self Leadership
Courageously Following Where No Man Has Gone Before

Like most of the known universe, I recently saw The Force Awakens …

This film is mostly just plain fun, with fascinating special effects and well-paced action.  This imaginary, yet sort of familiar, universe gives us a large and wonderfully diverse group of beings who exist, live, interact, struggle, and die.  It’s just techie enough and just emotional enough to satisfy most anyone.

The overall story for all seven Star Wars films is loosely based on Joseph Campbell‘s concept of the Hero’s Journey, which endows each film and the series with a stronger and deeper framework than most sci-fi and adventure flicks.

However, this is not a post about the film itself, but about one particular aspect:  The Followers.

Briefly, two large groups of followers exist in the current Star Wars universe – one group in the film and another intently watching:

The First Order:  A nefarious and fairly large group of people devoted without question to several shadowy and very evil leaders, who attempt to “restore order” to the universe by stomping out freedom, democracy, and the right to dress as you please. These are actors in costumes.

The Fan Base:  A sometimes fractious and also large group of people devoted to keeping the faith of the Star Wars universe. These folks are most diverse, ranging from lone individuals posting arcane theories about what will happen next to organized groups who replicate the images and activities of the films as homage. These are real people, who sometimes wear costumes.

Other groups exist, but these two are examples of following blindly, rather than courageously. In both cases, the followers are responding to someone else’s concepts and direction. The First Order is doing so in a fascist and malevolent way, while the Fan Base is more egalitarian, unstructured, and social, but in both cases, they are just working with what they get, without stopping to question or clarify, beyond quibbling over trivialities and technicalities.

Most of the followers in each group are accepting their basic motivations and goals without real questions.

These two distinct groups come to mind as I read The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff. After completing a more recent book by the same author entitled Intelligent Disobedience, my interest in his ideas about how leaders and followers might ideally interact led me to this interesting title.

The ideas in the book are clear, simple, and powerful, as in this statement:  “If we practice being courageous in our mundane interactions with leaders, we will be prepared if one day we are called upon to display extraordinary courage in our relationship with a leader.

In other words, a good follower is courageous, not just compliant.

Chaleff looks at interactions between leaders and followers with clarity, candor, and a mutual respect for each role. It is not about how to get rid of bad leadership, although poor leadership will lessen and even vanish, when followers act courageously.

This book starts with some painful reminders of how followers fail to confront leaders when they should, with negative outcomes. I found myself remembering specific instances and events where lack of courage among followers led to disaster for both leaders and followers. In one case, I failed to say anything repeatedly during formal meetings, even while learning that others saw the situation as I did and were supportive of the change I would propose.

While other leadership books call for us to take bold action and speak out strongly when necessary in our workplaces, most do not address the realities that exist within our workplaces and the dynamics that determine our actions.

Chaleff even directly talks about possibly the most important reason why followers do not always speak up or speak out:  They are afraid of the consequences.

I would imagine we all could contribute our own evidence that lack of courage by followers is a bad thing in our organizations and institutions.

Chaleff aims to create awareness in us of how to become powerful followers working in concert with our powerful leaders for the most mutually productive ends. I’ll have more to say about the Courageous Follower model another time, but I have some questions for us now:

As a follower, how do you rise above your instincts for self-preservation and the tendency to avoid conflict with those above you in the hierarchy?

As a leader, how do you foster a culture that encourages your followers to approach you bravely and with candor about critical issues?

As human beings, how do we increase our ability to build positive relationships between leaders and followers?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Have you ever been challenged to courageous followership? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fotolia fotomek

About The Author

Articles By john-smith
I enjoy helping people learn and grow through intentional, strategic, and social interventions. I coach, teach, train, facilitate, organize, write, speak, design, and lead at the intersection of leadership, learning, and human behavior. I am a CCE Board Certified Coach (BCC) with specializations in both Leadership/Business and Life/Personal coaching. My primary blog is The Strategic Learner on Wordpress.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Page Cole  |  28 Dec 2015  |  Reply

“a good follower is courageous, not just compliant.”


What a powerful lesson for leaders to teach their team members, and for us to remember when we are following others. Being a “team player” has become synonymous with being compliant or weak!

Thanks for the bold wake up call sir!

John Smith  |  28 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Paul – thanks for responding:)

Yeah … somewhere in the process of emphasizing “teamwork”, we butchered the definition and left out the important part about speaking the truth, even when it hurts.

Of course, the truth is not always received with the honor and respect it deserves, as many of us know from experience. This is a leadership failure of the first magnitude.

This is why I am so interested in these two titles. I have found little else that addresses all this as clearly as Chaleff’s work.


John Smith  |  29 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Sorry, “Page” … typing too fast and thinking too slowly … I promise not to call you “Paul” again.


Mary C. Schaefer  |  28 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Wow, John. You have inspired me to read both books.

To address your question: Have you ever been challenged to courageous followership?

I have good and bad news about this one. I can think of 2 separate significant occasions immediately, from my corporate career. Once was with the CEO, and the other with the VP of our division. The scenarios were the same. They were both talking about how great things were going in the business. It got to where I was getting sick to my stomach because I knew people were losing their jobs due to downsizing at this same time.

I wasn’t the only one who knew. Everyone knew. I told each leader that it was encouraging to hear how well we were doing. I then asked how we should reconcile knowing that colleagues would be losing their jobs at this same time. Both of them did exactly the same thing. Neither one answered my question. They both gave an answer, but I don’t know what question they were answering. I was disappointed in them, and the persons who prepped them.

I say “good news and bad news” because I didn’t feel like I experienced any negative repercussions from asking those questions (good news). That’s the bad news too though, which applies to many of my experiences with speaking up.

When I spoke the truth, no one in a “leadership” role had the nerve to do anything about it. Not that I wanted to be disciplined or dressed down, but they only showed weakness and cowardice to me in their “non-responses” – not leadership.

That’s why I talk my clients through courageous followership. Let’s look at the reality of the situation. You can look yourself in the eye by speaking up and the repercussions may not be what you expect.

Really thought-provoking post, John, and great tie-in to current pop culture.

John Smith  |  28 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – thanks for responding.

Knowing a little of your background and beliefs, I can tell you are going to enjoy these titles:)

Your illustrations are familiar to me, not in the details, but in the overall depiction of leaders who will not honestly and openly engage, for whatever reasons. I think we are seeing this quite a bit in the political arena right now and into the rest of this election cycle, but it is way too common in most organizations.

Your point about a lack of response being just as much a leadership failure is a great one. We often make decisions about what we do or do not do based on our assumptions about the results or consequences.

Interesting … many followers keep quiet because they fear repercussions and many “leaders” are probably very relieved that they do so, because the leader is then relieved from having to dance around or ignore the issue.

Not much fun for anyone involved …

Enjoyed your observations and looking forward to more as you dive into Chaleff’s works.


Mary C. Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Thanks John for the extra nudge to read these books.

I’m continuing to reflect on my stories and the non-leaders responses to me. I mentioned briefly that I was also disappointed in the people who prepped them. I used to pummel the leaders I served with real questions employees would ask. It occurs to me that those prepping the leaders in my story were out of touch AND/OR it was an “emperor has no clothes” situation. “Handlers” know the emperor doesn’t want to hear it so they quit bringing up the important issues. In fact I know that was true in one of the stories I shared because I called that “handler” 5 times in the weeks before that leader’s talk asking her if he was aware of what he was talking into. She said yes. I knew she was lying.

More parallels to your connection to the current political arena.

John Smith  |  29 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – thanks for the additional comments.

Hmmm … your experiences reinforce that courage is a commodity much needed, but more rare than we might think.

In the political arena, I believe this is especially prevalent. Since the standard for success often includes winning an election, the non-heroic behavior is reinforced because the “handler” thinks that victory had to do with steering their candidate away from the controversy, instead of coaching them through it.

Consequences do not always connect directly to behaviors … and that is a problem.

You are probably right on target with your observation about the “handler” giving up when the “leader” resists. This is exactly where courage becomes essential, but is also where the battle may be lost.

Any thoughts on how to help people become more courageous?


rehana mohamed  |  30 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Interesting to read!

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