Are Followers an Endangered Species?

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 -

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