Once there was a student preparing to send in an application for admission to the local university. She spent hours answering the questions and preparing the additional materials, but stopped when she came to the final question:
“Are you a leader?”
She felt like she had never led anyone before, so she answered the question with an honest “no” and sent in the application. She knew the university was looking for leaders (they had said so in their advertising), so she did not expect to be admitted.
A few weeks later she received this response from the admissions committee:
This year the university will admit 1,455 new leaders to our incoming class. We thought all those leaders would need at least one follower, so we are pleased to grant you admission.
Wherever you look, you’ll find no shortage of leaders and would-be leaders. Amazon offers more than 300,000 books on leadership. You’ve got charismatic leadership, primal leadership, guerrilla leadership, and countless other adjectives wrapped around the pursuit of leadership.
It’s not strictly a Western phenomenon. From walking the streets of places like Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Cambodia, I can report that these kinds of books are highly sought after around the world. The secret, it seems, is to put the word “leader” in your title to make it more successful.
Everyone wants to be a leader, it seems, but here’s an idea: why not be an influential follower?
More than anything else, changing the world requires strategic, dedicated action, but your strategy can be greatly improved through research. In the early stages of my legacy project, I did a lot of following. I was impressed with Steve Pavlina’s work and a number of the LifeRemix writers. I wanted to share from my own perspective, of course, but I knew there was a lot I could learn from watching these experts.
Since I just returned from ten days in Africa, I wasn’t able to attend the SXSW conference where the entire Internet is meeting this week. While I was in transit somewhere, however, I decided that I had to at least go down to meet up with some of the people I follow. I’m headed to Austin this morning and I’ll be back late tomorrow night.
I’m grateful that as my influence has grown, I’ve been able to help some of these people and add value to their own network of followers. Some of them consider me a peer now, which I’ll take as more evidence that I’ve fooled the world. As much as anything else, I trace this to careful listening and following.
The Smartest Person in the Room
To find the balance between leading and following, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “Am I the smartest person in the room?” Hopefully, the answer is no — because if you’re not being challenged by those around you, you won’t be able to grow until you make some changes. Look for people who have more influence, more intelligence, and more courage than you do.
Growth is easy for me, because in my room I am far from the smartest person. Many of the people who comment on this site are much smarter than me. I learn from everyone who writes in and many of the people I connect with on Twitter.
By the way, leadership is not an either / or position. People debate the meaning of leadership, but one thing that everyone agrees on is that leaders exercise influence. Once you have followers (of any kind), then you are a leader. Voila! You can have influence without a title, and some people with titles have very little influence.
On the other hand, a leader without any followers is just out for a walk. There is nothing wrong with starting small – we all do. But instead of talking all the time, why not take the time to listen for a while? Authenticity is a prerequisite to good leadership, at least the kind of leadership I’m interested in following.
It’s okay to be a follower, and you can even be an influential one.
New Zealand Climbing Image by KoolS
Great message Chris, one I haven’t seen crystallized like that before.
I think a lot of people feel pressured to become ‘push ahead of the pack and drag them along behind me’ leaders when often you can achieve better results by gently influencing those around you.
By putting yourself head and shoulders above others you may have a better view but you do not have the same interactions and will often fail to grasp what is really happening, the lessons that can be learned and the best course of action.
If you become a leader, guru or expert you run the risk of closing off your learning, losing touch with the people you preach to and their view of the world.
At college I learnt so much more from my few wonderful teachers who were still working in the field and studying. They were aware of current issues, new the pitfalls and shortcuts. They weren’t preaching from the textbooks, as the career academics did. Instead they shared their experiences, traded thoughts with fellow students and learn from our perspectives as well.
Be the collaborator not the preacher. Learn and share ideas, evolve together. May I be a lifelong student.
oh thanks. strangely- what a relief. i want to excel but i find comfort in following people who do things bigger and better than i do- it’s nice to see there’s a happy medium, excellence and learning.
much difference from the “follow peer pressure” or “be the peer pressure” model of high school.
I really enjoyed this post as it got me thinking. Thanks Chris!
“Even” many social media advocates still hew to the Leaders/Followers model
in this flattening world where those who can recruit people extremely unlike them
to join in accomplishing “first-evers” will succeed as sought-after Participants.
That’s what made the most difference (other than the candidate himself)
on the Obama campaign staff, as I experienced it.
Alternatively it seems to me that who will most succeed are those Opportunity-Makers who …
1. look for the sweet spot of mutual benefit between them and others
2. articulate that mutual benefit to the possible team in a way that naturally recruits them to join in capturing the opportunity
3. Being open to facilitating the team’s success or asking the team to consider who is best suited to do so
4. Getting the team to agree on that single top goal, rules of engagement, tasks with lead persons for each and related timetable.
Only then can we optimize our opportunities in work and in life.
Only then, methinks can we become happier and higher-performing with others.
Ultimately we’ll enjoy accomplishing greater things together than apart, as team players and, at other times, team facilitators…. moving from me to we.
Although I have carried out a number of management and senior executive roles in my career I’ve never wanted the ‘top dog’ position. I much prefer the ‘sage standing to the side of the throne’ position because this gave me chance to step back and give dispassionate advice and support.
I used to wonder if my lack of ambition was a wakness on my part, but I’ve come to realise that the ‘authentic’ me wants to do the *right* thing far more than being responsible for acheiving the *required* thing. A true leader has to compromise somewhat (in a big organisation) to achieve the business aims. Not such a big issue in a smaller organisation, particularly if you are the owner!
Hey guys, GREAT comments. Thanks for adding value.
I’m getting on a plane to fly to Dallas and then Austin, but will post up any more feedback upon arrival. 🙂
Hi Chris – I liked this post if only because the story at the beginning made me smile. Ever since I started applying for positions, whether they be in school or in work, I’ve always wondered how come every organization is constantly looking for leaders, when really, thousands of leaders with no followers make for a lousy team.
Anyway, I have a question for you. You talked a bit about your own experience of considering yourself a follower, but how would you go about advising someone else to be a follower? Is it as easy as changing your mindset (easy being used loosely)?
I think a lot of people can benefit from learning how to follow, but doing so is not as easy as it looks, especially for those of us who have been conditioned to think that leader = good, and follower = bad.
“Are you the smartest person in the room?”
It’s always great when the people around me challenge me in ways that push me beyond what I’m used to, whether intellectually or physically.
The belief that you have nothing to learn from others is probably the biggest ego-trip you can have.
As a dancer whose main dance is a partnered one, understanding both the role of a leader and the role of a follower is essential to being a good leader. Leaders who cannot follow what their partner is doing lose so much of the partnership that is important. The same is true in every aspect of life.
I really enjoyed this post, Chris! I’m currently getting my B.S. in organizational leadership, and I often feel confronted with that intimidating question: Are you a leader? And, who is following you? These are such loaded questions, like that heavy word “potential.” We all have a certain sphere of influence, giving us a certain level of leadership. However, I enjoy following and promoting people who are doing great things in the world and would rather bend to their extraordinary leadership than try to vie with them for it. I am learning more and more how much I am *not* the expert. The learning part of that is wonderful and what makes being a follower so addictive.
I have never believed I was a leader. I didn’t want to be a leader an I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for a bunch of people following me. I got into management by accident: I thought I was applying for the team member position – they gave me the team leader role – I was flattered so I took it! What a mistake it was the start of years of misery as I had this deep conflict between being expected to be a “leader” and actually knowing that I wasn’t any better than the people I was leading – I just had the title!
Fortunately having escaped the cubicle I don’t have to play those games anymore!
I’m writing this before I read the comments, which I will do next. I love working with my mastermind team brainstorming issues. Everyone is a leader and follower. The ideas are all that matter. It does not matter who gets credit. We use our individual strengths to strengthen the whole team.
Your posts and books are so thought prevoking for this 72 year old. Life is great.
I don’t like to be a manager and feel responsible for leading people. I do like to influence and help people. I guess the latter is a much more diffuse form of responsibility.
Decided to follow you, Chris. But this is not why you wrote this.
“Am I the smartest person in the room?” No, on many things, yes on a few things. So, on many things I rather not lead.
To lead, do you need to be the smartest in the room? No, not at all. Or it depends. It would be wise to see if you are smart enough (compared to the others) to take the lead on the subject at hand. Then you just take the lead and will quickly see if you have followers. Or choose to let it go it and influence from behind.
People perceiving you as smart on the thing they are interested may follow you, which earns you the leadership. Keep being vigilant and listening as you are, Chris. Getting entrenched gives leadership the bad rap of having gone from fluid to rigid.
Take away: Leadership is a lot like reputation – not always deserved, but substantially earned.
I’ve been thinking about ‘following’ for the last two weeks, since a hike in the old Kiandra goldfields. There’s a lot to be said for not being first, sometimes!
I’ve got a post to publish about this, but I’ll add your link, I think.
Chris, Thanks for the post. We are deluged with leadership. In reality not everyone can always be a leader. Sometimes you just have to follow well. Why no books on followership?
As Garrisson Keillor (sp?) said: “All the children are above average” 🙂
Hey, that’s awesome, I have thought about the same thing as your second to last paragraph, “you can have influence but not a title” for myself as well. Who cares about a title, right? I would rather be following a leader who has a clear vision, yet still be able to influence them/my peers than to be the top dog and not have enough influence. Now both, that’s a cool concept as well.
I love the story’s ironic and funny twist! It’s an interesting and unfortunate commentary on our society that the role of follower has such a denigrating connotation attached to it. It takes great courage to be a true leader, and true humility to be a great follower. Everyone has influence no matter what their station in life. Wisdom is knowing when (and whom) to follow and when (and where) to lead.
Thanks for making us think, and keeping it real!
What a great and encouraging post! I think it is a good lesson in being humble. It happens to me often in many group situations that I’m feeling I’m too good for the others but then, fortunately, I’m proven wrong. It’s always good to get inspiration from others’ virtues.
Great post Chris!! Thanks!
I always ask myself, “Am I comfortable doing what I do??”. If yes, I try to do something different.. something better.. True, that only when you are out of your comfort zone, you really learn..
thank you, chris, for this excellent article! i have often suffered from “follower guilt” in the sea of leader wannabees, and it is inspiring to know that one CAN follow and be productive and influential at the same time. over the years i have had glimpses of this possibility, but knowing someone else sees the potential of influential following is refreshing and inspiring.
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