Thirty Leaders and Two Followers: Can We All Be Leaders?

A few weeks ago, I was preparing to teach by re-reading the chapter for which the material we’d be covering in class. Part of the class session was going to be spent on leadership. Granted, this is an undergraduate textbook in organizational behavior, I was truly disappointed to find that of the 30+ pages on leadership, there were only two — 2 — pages spent talking about followers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a successful leader without followers.

One of the broader issues here is math. Of all the people in the world, how many of them do you think will be leaders? Of all the people in the world, how many of them do you think will be followers? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t strive to be leaders or be the best they can be, but based on our current definition/understanding of leadership, not everyone will spend a great deal of their time being a leader. In fact, most people will spend the majority of their lives being followers — and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, many of the people that we think of as great leaders were — in fact — once followers. Some say you have to be a good follower before you can be a good leader, but I’m not really going to get into leadership philosophy right now.

Instead, I wanted to draw to your attention to the amount of time we spend thinking about, talking about, and teaching leadership and the absolute void with regard to following. For instance, a quick Google search returns over 450,000,000 results for leadership, but only 420,000 for followership. You might think that’s not a fair comparison, so what about how to be a good follower or how to be a good leader? Follower returns: 54,000,000 (though I think some of these might be returning religious results). Leader returns: 1,350,000.

While leadership is more revered, it certainly seems like there’s room in the popular literature for a few great books on followers and how to be a good one.

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10 responses to “Thirty Leaders and Two Followers: Can We All Be Leaders?

  1. Good point. I don’t know if many people like to refer to themselves as followers, maybe because they secretly want to be a leader. However, I think a great article title would be “How to Select Your Next Mentor.” In that article, you can include what it means to be a good follower. 🙂

    • I never thought of following as having such a direct connection to mentorship, but I suppose you’ve got a point. I think that some of the same principles for selecting a good mentor would probably be similar to those principles for selecting a good psychologist.

  2. I’m always surprised by the number of people who do not want to be leaders. It’s often really challenging to find people who want to be promoted to management positions, and most people will not proactively step-up to lead in more informal capacities. I think that those of us who want to lead, and who are naturally drawn to leading, assume that everyone wants to be a leader, like we do, but it’s just not how the world is. It seems that many people are envious of the positive side-effects of leadership, even though they don’t want to lead in order to receive them themselves. Regarding teaching leadership vs. followership: I think that leadership, by definition, if it is going to be instructed at all, requires more instruction than followership. To be a follower, you follow a leader. That’s what it means to be a follower. You don’t need to take a class on how to follow a leader, unless the leader is a really bad leader. On the other hand, should a leader learn how to be a better leader? I think that’s a good thing.

    • An interesting perspective and some important points. Absolutely a leader should learn how to be a better leader. On the topic of followership, though: I don’t know that it’s as easy as “following the leader.” Maybe it is. Maybe it’s because the leader is bad, I’m not sure. However, I think that good followers can certainly assist in making a leader a better leader. So, if people know that they don’t want to be a leader, wouldn’t it be a reasonable expectation that they become great followers?

      • Absolutely. I think that great leaders know how to follow.

        “If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.” Tao Te Ching, 66. (Lao-tzu)

        “If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao.” Tao Te Ching, 57.

        I also think that great leaders facilitate following as a core element of leadership. Leaders help followers to be better leaders. I do agree that in reality there are a lot of leaders who are unwilling to learn how to improve and the responsibility is then on the followers to lead the leader, to manage-up, to reverse-parent.

        A great leader turns the followers into leaders.

        “When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists … When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!’” Tao Te Ching, 17.

      • Note: I’m not sure why, but it won’t it won’t let me respond directly to your comment, so I replied to mine above (so that it’d follow in the sequence).

        It certainly makes sense that a good leader would be able to make followers into leaders, but what happened to the thought above that not everyone wants to be a leader? Does the leader convince them otherwise through their leadership?

        To put this into an example, I wonder how different the Occupy Movement would have looked with a leader (maybe someone like MLK). To be sure, the argument could be made that the Occupy Movement wouldn’t have developed the way that it had, if it had a leader. Though, it’d be interesting to think about the kinds of change (policy?) that could have been made had there been a figurehead (or a strong leader).

      • It seems that WordPress doesn’t allow comment threads more than two deep.

        Good leaders develop self-leadership in the people they lead. This is what Lao-tzu is referring to. Good leadership makes people independent of the leader; it’s a form of good parenting: moving someone from being dependent to being independent. Most people don’t want to lead others, but everyone is intrinsically motivated by autonomy, the ability and freedom to lead oneself.

        Regarding the occupy movement: that seemed (seems) like a demonstration against leadership, a kind of taking of self-power, a rebellion against organization. I don’t know what deeper purpose it really served (serves) for those individuals or for society, but I wonder if it could have even existed with a leader.

  3. Pingback: It is Important to Speak, but not More Important than it is to Listen | Jeremiah Stanghini's Blog

  4. It is true that followers are important in how you are currently conceptualizing leadership. However, there are other ways to conceptualize it. In the Psychology of Leadership course I teach we look at it in both the traditional way you do here, but also from another perspective. I recommend you read a book called, “The Deep Blue Sea,” by Drath. Thought the writing is tedious and not well done, the reconceptualization of leadership is well thought out. It may make you reconsider the notion that there needs to be followers for there to be leadership.

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