Follow by Example

by  Alan Derek Utley  |  Self Leadership

Picture the best follower you have ever known.

Was this person in possession of any of these traits?  Knew their stuff.  Had drive and determination. Was positive and willing to serve. Challenged you and made your ideas better. Helped you realize and achieve your vision.  Made you and everyone around you better.

I hope you’ve had the pleasure of working with this person on at least one occasion.

Most would agree that followers are critical to a leader’s success. In fact, without followers, could Columbus have sailed the ocean blue in 1492?  Could Shakespeare have produced any of his now world famous plays?  Could Lincoln have abolished slavery?  Could Ray Lewis have won the Super Bowl? And, could Captain Kirk have boldly gone were no man had gone before?

But, if this is true –  that followers are so important – then why do we pass down phrases like “if you’re not a leader, you’re a follower” and “be a leader, not a follower”?  Somehow, followers have earned a bad rap, haven’t they?  Think about it.  Today, the term “follower” has a negative connotation.  We don’t often hear mentors offer their mentees advice to “follow by example.”  We don’t often hear children tell their parents “I want to be a follower when I grow up.”

But, what will happen if no one aspires to be a follower?  Because, without them how else can a vision be achieved?  Barbara Kellerman, Harvard Professor of Public Leadership and author of Followership, said “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”

To me this means that, as a leader, I need to find the best followers I can and treat them in the best way possible if I’m to achieve my goals.  It is a very simple formula, really.

Also, many of the qualities that are desirable in a leader are the very same qualities we look for in our followers.  So, what distinguishes one from the other at the end of the day?  Sometimes it is a title. Other times it is a matter of who has ultimate responsibility and accountability for results.  Steve Jobs is known for saying that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” At the end of the day I believe there is a thin line separating the two.

So followers should recognize and stand proud of their roles in government, business, sports, education, and wherever else they follow.  I say it is time to take back the term.  Because without followers, there are simply no leaders, and there is simply no success.

As I think back over the followers that I admire the most, I consider these “musts” to be self-evident:

A follower must…

  • disagree and question me regularly and passionately
  • offer ideas often, openly and without ego
  • execute with the precision of a master surgeon

I’m sure there are other ways to “follow by example,” but this is a fair starting point because it speaks to the basic contributions of a follower: question, shape, and perform.

And I’m sure there are plenty of followers out there who are more than willing to disagree and offer their own perspectives on the role.  I welcome those, of course.

In the end, followers and leaders need each other. Both should strive to be the best they can be in their respective roles. And each should be cognizant and respectful of those times when they shift from one role to the other.

In closing, a student once shared with me a piece of advice they had received from their parents.  Hearing this advice is the closest I think I’ve ever come to a battle cry for followership.  It goes something like this: “if you end up being a janitor, be the best darn janitor you can be.”

This advice reminds me of the legend of the NASA janitor who was mopping the floor on the day of the first shuttle launch to the moon. When asked what he was doing he responded with “I’m putting a man on the moon.” That’s followership.

Let’s respect the thin line between followership and leadership, encourage our followers to stand proud of their role and contributions, and finally, let’s take back the term.  Maybe someday soon we’ll hear a kid say “I want to be a follower when I grow up.”

How do you follow by example?

 Photo Image:

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By alan-utley
Alan Utley is a Regional HR Director for one of the world’s largest vacation businesses. By night he dabbles in executive coaching, blogging, and public speaking and is proud to serve on the management faculty at a major university. In his own words, Alan is a “world-class wannabe expert in all things leadership and careers.” Connect with Alan at and on Twitter @AlanDUtley.

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  07 Mar 2013  |  Reply

Alan, thanks for the great post. Words have meaning. I don’t like the use of the word “follower” for the very reasons you articulate. It implies passivity and reaction. When someone chooses to take a role that positionally isn’t the leadership position, they still should lead. You’re qualities above are very similar to what we consider to be the behaviors of a character-based leader: someone who leads from who they are rather than their power or position.

So it’s no excuse to abandon leadership simply because we’re not in the position of leadership. Thanks for the challenging post. Mike…

Alan Derek Utley  |  07 Mar 2013  |  Reply

Thanks for the comment. I cringe a little with the term too, and that’s why I think we should take it back! Of course, other terms we can use are many: employee, associate, individual contributor, team member, cast member, and the list goes on.

You add an excellent point about the character-based leader, and leading from within. Most definitely, regardless of the role – or what we call it – the same traits and skills are required for success.


Susan Mazza  |  07 Mar 2013  |  Reply

Just love your declaration of followership Alan: “I consider these “musts” to be self-evident…” I would consider each of those musts an act of leadership.

To be a leader we must first and foremost be the kind of follower you describe. It is interesting to me that when you use the word “followership” it takes on a significantly different (and better) feel somehow than the word “follower”.

There is a big difference between going along with someone or the status quo, the definition of the kind of followers that give following a bad name, and standing behind someone in service of something that matters. As I think in this moment perhaps an alternative to the word followers that points to the best of the great followers is a champion. What do you think?

Alan Derek Utley  |  07 Mar 2013  |  Reply

Thank you for your great comment. I very much like your suggestion. “Champion” is a solid choice for an alternate word to describe the best in followership. And now that you have me thinking about it I’ll suggest “catalyst” as another. Also…one might suggest both words are great synonyms for leader.

Susan Mazza  |  07 Mar 2013  | 

The word “follower” has been bugging me for some time. I’ve pondered coming up with an alternative word/distinction but have been coming up blank until this post so thanks so much for a rich discussion on this topic. To me this is one of the biggest opportunities of a community like Lead Change.

Taking that idea a step further… perhaps we are identifying the 3? C’s of Followership — Champion. Catalyst, Connector, ?. If you can come up with any other “C’s” let me know and I will write a post for this blog, building on your post and this conversation and linking back here. What do you think? Ultimately what I’d love to settle on is another word without so much baggage that has the power to transform how we think about “followership” as you so aptly called it. But who knows where this conversation will lead us. I’m in for the process of discovering this together though!

Alan Derek Utley  |  08 Mar 2013  | 


I’m so glad I’ve offered something that has got the wheels turning! I think many great things come in three’s and C’s, and I like your suggestions. Another one that comes to mind is “coach” used within the context of managing up.

Give it a go and let’s see what comes of it. I look forward to it.

Join The Conversation