Of Followers and Leaders

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

The definitions of words intrigue me. Words can have multiple meanings. Think of one quick (clean) example, the word coast. It can mean someplace we hope the oil doesn’t ruin or it can mean to neither accelerate or brake (as opposed to break).

I’ve spoken before about character-based leadership as leading from who you are rather than your position.  The word leader gets a second, clarifying meaning.  I don’t mean to confuse, but to clarify, although many people have tried to convince me otherwise.  When your followers follow you with energy because they believe you’re on their side, you’re being a character based leader.  When they do it because you’re the boss, well, let’s call that positional leadership (and keep this clean).

The double meaning of the word leader creates a question: are there two meanings for follower?  The reason why I ask is related to intention.  Many wonderful people are training leaders.  Many definitions of leader or leadership suggest the presence of followers.  So what happens when we’ve taught everyone to lead?  Do we need to grow more followers?  Will our supply of people to convert into leaders eventually run dry?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I submit few want to be a follower, although we all serve in that capacity at some time.  I suggest there might be a second meaning for the word follower.  Seth Godin wrote a leadership book titled Linchpin.  A linchpin is a necessary person, but not necessarily the one in charge.  Their character and their personal commitments make them something more than one who “just does what they’re told.”  Godin uses the term “linchpin.”

So do you want to be a follower when you grow up?  What word would you use?

Photo by bschmove on Flickr

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

Mary Jo Asmus  |  23 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Hi Mike,

Thanks for another thought provoking post.

I often think that we under estimate the power of followership, particularly in a democratic society; whether we are speaking of the power to vote or the power to tell it like it is in our organizations.

Followers are every bit as responsible for bad (or good) leadership as the leaders themselves. I wrote about this here: .

Mike Henry  |  23 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Mary Jo,

Thanks for the comment and the link. We get the worst leaders we will tolerate. Whatever compromises we allow in our leaders typically comes back to haunt.

And we all follow. We all live in a society that requires us to subordinate our interests to the law and the common good. We want responsible, capable people who contribute to the effort rather than someone who makes compromises because of fear or convenience. Like you said in your post, it is an act of leadership to step up and act.


perry  |  23 Aug 2010  |  Reply


Great points and I would agree with Mary Jo that true “followership” is undervalued as ALL OF US are followers in some respect (or should be). No one operates as their own boss as we are all accountable to someone. The best leaders understand that they are accountable to those they have the privilege of leading and act accordingly. In fact, there is the theory that those who cannot follow cannot lead and I would tend to agree with that.
I loved Godin’s book and think it is a great point of view that would benefit all of us to consider and it also dovetails nicely into a simple definition of leadership…influence. If we considered that anyone who influences leads, they we all bear the burden and then it simply becomes…are we a positive or negative influence? It also takes “positional leadership” out of the question as it changes the paradigm to not what you do but how you do it.
No one has to wait to lead, all you have to do is accept that you can and are you building up or tearing down.
Thanks for the great post!

Mike Henry  |  24 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Thanks Perry for the great comment. You always have some quotable things in your responses. I especially liked that no one has to wait to lead. We either are leading by building up or tearing down. Well said.


Peter A. Mello  |  23 Aug 2010  |  Reply

I really don’t understand why so many people think there is something bad about the word “follow” or the act of following. It’s really all about influence, isn’t it? When we exercise leadership we influence others and when we follow we are influenced by others.

Like so many words, it’s how we modify them that gives them meaning. Granted following “blindly” is definitely not a good thing, but “learning” is following in an intelligently, inquisitive fashion.

On the day he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy was to deliver a speech which included the quote “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” It’s awful difficult to learn, and therefore lead, without following.

Very, very few, if any, can claim that they are leaders only. In fact, I believe that most of us follow a heck of a lot more than we lead.

To blindly follow is bad. To follow, not so bad.

Mike Henry  |  23 Aug 2010  |  Reply

I agree with you Peter. We do follow more than we lead. But the rebel in me wants to remember that I do it by choice. It is a choice and I therefore must be responsible (not blind) for my efforts and their outcomes. We need informed contributors, not passive victims. Learning in order to be an informed follower is an act of self-leadership, too.

Gordon Clogston  |  25 Aug 2010  |  Reply

In rigidly hierarchical systems, i.e. military organizations, to be a follower is mandated. At the same time, their structure and reward systems are based on promotions with the intent of moving qualified, experienced individuals into positions of leadership so that they can help others to learn. That might be clear from the leader’s perspective. Not so much from the private who is out picking up cigarette butts and other litter that he/she did not discard. There are many such structures and it may be their influence that is promoting the challenges to followership.

It is as you indicated in your article, all about words. We seem to have put a negative connotation on the words, follow, following, and followers. And yet, as Peter pointed out, it is really more about influence. We are either the one influencing or the one being influenced. And as Peter pointed out being blindly influenced or worse yet, manipulated (and I am purposefully using the most negative connotation here) is not the same thing as being influenced in a cooperative, productive, and positive way.

It is my experience and my belief that well balanced organizations and teams allow for a sharing of leadership. Depending on the needs of the moment any one member may be in possession of knowledge or skills that would allow them to be the primary source of influence. Yes, there may be one member who has the positional power to approve the ultimate course of action, but everyone has the capacity if allowed, to contribute and therefore influence the thinking of others. In such environments we are all leaders and we are all followers depending on the circumstances of the moment.

Very interesting, thought-provoking article, Mike. Keep them coming.

Michael Felberbaum  |  31 Aug 2010  |  Reply

I’ve read a few of your blog posts and I like your work. Your emphasis on words is very important as so much of leadership is about communication. Some thoughts:

A leader is out in front, a follower is behind. Why be behind? Sometimes I think about the doctors nurses that cared for my wife while she was in the hospital for a month. We were certainly following their lead and we were happy to do so.

A follower is a support, a leader is alone. Why follow? There are many other people with you, a whole community. I think about great artists who struggle to find their voice in their work. And I think about all the people who listen to their music and sing their songs, or enjoy their paintings or shows. Who is happier?

Leadership has no inherent value in my book. It’s about being out in front in a decision-making capacity. Still, it’s a role like any other — manager, contributor, author, mom, dad. What matters is how one relates in the role, how one serves the capacity. That’s why I like your notion of character-based leadership.

All best,

Mike Henry  |  31 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Michael, thanks for the comment. I think we’re agreeing with different verbiage. The roles must exist. But I don’t think we want to have people “following” us who can’t do anything else. Choosing to be a great follower for a time is the act of a character-based leader. They’re leading themselves to perform in a way that serves themselves and others. Mike…

Tim  |  26 Sep 2010  |  Reply

My opinion is the role of follower is a role of influence much like the role of leader. The follower will influence others in that they see and experience the follower’s life moving in a certain direction. That direction may have been prescribed by the leader. But the follower chooses to follow that direction. This in and of itself may be a more powerful form of influence in some situations than being the leader. This is why testimonials can be so powerful. They speak of someone’s willingness to follow someone else’s idea. A leader may have written the book, but it’s often all of the people who say it’s a great book that gets you to read it.

Mike Henry  |  27 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Tim, thanks for the great comment. The role of “follower” is important, but not less or more than that of leader. We need people to follow, but we don’t need them to stop leading. We need people who serve as followers yet retain their ability to think for themselves and bring their ideas and their best energy to the situation. Thanks for the great twist on the post.

Ted Kusio  |  15 Mar 2011  |  Reply

This is awesome….still today.

I recently was in a situation where many people (mostly, I believe, “middle managers”) were making LOTS of changes to something, but no one was making it better. Instead their many, many changes made things worse.

So not only were they not leading, but they were following each other in circles.


Mike Henry  |  15 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for the comment. There is an art to contributing or collaborating. There is little art to following and no art to leading when others aren’t inspired and energized to participate.


Ted Kusio  |  15 Mar 2011  |  Reply

It was all fear, I think.

If they remained silent, approved of what was there (which was as good as it could be, all things considered), then they might seem as if they didn’t even look it over.
If they made BIG CHANGES, well, what if they were WRONG?
So they change “this” to “that” and “now” to “today” and they still have their office.

I spoke up.

In one instance, well, I’m no longer there (thankfully!).
In the more recent instance, I’m so far away from the action that all that was heard was an faint, fading echo attributed to a passing fire engine.

I will lead a different tribe. :)

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