Follow me: The Flip Side of Leadership

leaderEveryone is encouraged to be the leader, whether they are still children in school, scouts, in sports; or adults at work, in society, or in sports. And leadership skills are important; leaders are at the top of their field, commanding higher incomes and more respect. It seems a no-brainer that we should all be leaders, with society either encouraging or pressuring everyone into leadership roles. Leaders contribute new technology and ideas that help our society advance, and reach further heights in the pinnacle of civilization.

While leadership is an outstanding personal trait, there is a bit of a mathematical problem here: in order for someone to be a leader, there has to be someone following. By definition, a leader has followers; otherwise you’re just a single person doing what you want to. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either; it’s just not leadership.

No, if you are to be the team leader, then you need a team of people who are not the leader to follow you. CEOs need employees, politicians need voters and scientists need…research assistants? (I don’t know; I’m an economist so I don’t know much about real science).  So of course there are plenty of reasons for us to encourage leadership, but the flip side of looking down on followers is completely uncalled for. In fact, you could say it’s bad leadership.

A good leader understands and appreciates the differences and needs of his followers. Yet we have so many people bemoaning the existence of subservient people, “sheeple”, brown-noses, fans, followers. The implication is that followers are inferior and otherwise don’t think for themselves. Frankly, I think a society that aspires to build leaders should have a much higher regard of followers.


The fact of the matter is that most of us are not cut out for leadership, and the excess enthusiasm for leadership coupled with derision towards followers (see? even calling someone a follower is insulting), push unqualified people into assuming a dominant attitude instead of embracing their real personality. And people who acknowledge their follower personality have a lot of trouble finding acceptance in society, and developing comfortably and fully in their position.

To a certain extent, our society is obsessed with inferior/superior ratios. We place more value on leaders, so we presume leaders are superior. “Inferior” followers are looked down on, even though the reality is that we are all at some point leaders and followers, and we are all equal. This presumption of inequality is the fundamental problem in promoting leadership and embracing followship. Thinking that leaders are superior is, in itself, a sign of bad leadership; and despite our social obsession with leaders, we seem to be really bad at leadership.

female-doctor-22929877Within an increasingly specialized society, there are more opportunities for social interaction between leaders and followers. Take for example, a police officer who goes to see his doctor. In that case, the doctor is in a position of authority (dominance/leadership), and it’s good for the police officer to follower her advice. A doctor will make a better evaluation of the symptoms than the police officer. But a second later, when a bunch of armed robbers break into the doctor’s practice, the police officer is in a position to make better decision on self-defense than the doctor. The doctor should assume a position of follower, reversing the position they had just seconds ago.

The trouble with focusing exclusively on promoting leadership, people do not learn how to be good followers. Following doesn’t mean doing as you’re told without question; and the mere existence of this erroneous concept shows just how poorly we as a society comprehend the relationship between a leader and a follower, and to a degree, explains our inability to develop competent leaders. Good leaders require good followers; you can’t develop just one side of the equation.

The problem is that the overwhelming majority of people are in the position of followers: employees, voters, students, etc. But they have a very unhealthy reaction to leadership and authority; either blindly accepting instructions (sheeple) or reflexively resisting authority (sticking it to The Man). Neither attitude is productive.

politicsLet’s go back to the policeman and the doctor. If he takes her advice without question and swallows any pill she gives him…what if she’s making a mistake? Misunderstood his description of the symptoms? Maybe she’s abusing her position of power. Conversely, refusing to take any medicine that the doctor prescribes is stupid; why go to the doctor if you aren’t going to heed her advice?

A leader assumes responsibility because ultimately they decide in what direction the team will go. However, it’s important that the team support and back up that decision. Not just by going where the leader leads, but providing all the information and support that the leader needs to make that decision. And most importantly, hold the leader accountable afterwards if the direction was the right one or the wrong one.

Most importantly, followers need to understand what their position entails and to embrace it as equal to that of the leader. A leader is only as good as his followers; and if we as a society refuse to foster good followers, we will never have good leaders. For a real world example: our elected officials will only be as good as the people we vote for. It’s poor form to bemoan the quality of politicians if we don’t worry about the quality of voters.


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