The Forgotten Art of Following
What happened to all the followers?
A number of years ago someone had the brilliant idea that leadership was an industry unto itself. Authors began writing books about leaders and leadership. Speakers and trainers began teaching everyone how to be a leader. Corporations began to promote the value of leadership above all other attributes. Consultants were hired to mentor leaders both new and old. Society idealized leadership . . . and began unintentionally marginalizing followers.
The importance of leadership is not in dispute. In fact, the evidence does suggest that organizations often rise or fall based on the quality of leadership. It seems, however, like a piece of the leadership equation has been neglected over the last few years.
No one says, “When I grow up I am going to be a great follower!” Children rarely dream of being a lady-in-waiting, an extra in a movie, or a bridesmaid. Few of us imagine playing center in professional football. Children dream of being the starting quarterback, the team captain, the royalty and the bride. Perhaps it is entirely natural that people desire a position of leadership and acclamation, but somewhere along the way, society forgot the art of following.
When a football center does his job well, even brilliantly, no one really comments on it. But when that same center fumbles his job - the whole play falls apart. A poorly executed snap can cost his team the game. The surgical nurse is rarely highlighted in medical dramas, but if that supporting role is not enacted with skill and perfection, the surgery can end in disaster.
The exceptional center and the brilliant surgical assistant both understand the critical, nearly heroic nature of a great follower. Great followers are the reason great leaders exist. John Maxwell claims “leaders are made not born.” No doubt he is correct, but it is not simply a person’s choices that make him a leader any more than a simple title. Only followers can truly make a leader. We could go a step further and say that leaders are chosen. If you have no followers, you really aren’t leading. You are just taking a walk.
A great follower will recognize the character, skill, and knowledge of an individual and choose to follow her wherever she leads. In that moment of choice, the follower has created a leader. This is more than just electing an official or taking a position under a manager or supervisor. This is the conscious choice to follow someone because they are worthy of being followed.
Leadership experts rightfully claim that leadership is not associated with position. The research and leadership studies that are conducted confirm that leaders lead from whatever position they are in regardless of their title. This statement is equally true of followers. No matter how high I climb in the corporate system, the organization or the world, I will still be a follower. How and who I follow will inevitably influence my leadership.
So who are you following?