The Future of Followers

The future of leadership and followers

Generally, authority has been explained by the presence of followers. If adherents are present, you’re a leader. Or at least that’s how it’s been traditionally interpreted. However, if that’s the situation, if we all emerge as leaders, do we cease being commanders because we have no devotees? Is a leader anybody who can “get” others to follow? Or is a leader something more?

Countless days I am reminded of the difficulties that come with communication because of distinctions in the definition of words. Lately, in a group setting, my friend Cynthia Stewart made a remark that I took issue with surrounding leadership.

“It is misguided to accept that we can manage persons. We can manage objects, but not people. People don’t wish to be managed, in fact, people hate to be managed. People would like to be led.”

Her comment, I am confident, lined up very well with the idea that leadership is influence. People don’t choose to be put in little bins and handled like a resource or a project. They choose to be swayed to make free decisions regarding their engagement without manipulation.

Cynthia, a quality expert with several years consulting in industry who created the Lead Quality Group on LinkedIn, was really making the distinction between regulating, manipulative leaders and encouraging leaders.

“Empowering leaders, those you mention as character-based leaders, trust and rely on people and prefer to influence and empower those below their authority to improve and become the very best they can be. It falls to character-based leaders to cast the vision and rally individuals behind it, showing them what they have to gain individually and professionally in achieving it.”

Agreeing with my colleague and her interpretation, I still disagreed with the assertion. 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 recognizes the repercussions of an action are larger than they can stand, they may feel “forced” to perform something.

Simon Sinek said that we basically have two methods to get people to act: motivation or manipulation. When inspired, people deliver intensity, exhilaration, creativity, passion, determination, support and a host of other positives to any work. When manipulated, at best (for the leader) they provide those same attitudes, at least before they realize their error. When they feel sold, manipulated or when their motivation wanes, so does their energy and effort.

Did you enter the workforce planning to become a follower? Positional leaders demand followers. You’re not “in” the lead except if you have people that are also in position to follow. If every person became a leader right now, where would all the followers come from?

Everyday, character-based leaders, those who lead from who they are, instead of from a title, overtly choose to submit to the directorship of others. Those others may be in positions of leadership or they may not. Those others may simply have a greater approach, or be more qualified, but they have no “title” of authority. They’re not “in command.”

In my repartee back and forth with Cynthia, it appears we weren’t that different after all. In fact, we all need to lead where we can based on our talents, skills, experience & knowledge, and we all need to obey where we can not or choose not to lead.

To her point:

“I won’t ever be a priest, so I look to my pastor. I won’t ever be a doctor, an elected official, a superintendent, etc. so I look to others for that and take their lead. I follow in many aspects of my life, but I lead my life, I lead my family alongside my husband and I lead my business.”

Well stated.

We can each be character-based leaders, leading from who we happen to be. We don’t “turn into” a follower when we choose to join. We don’t change who we are by choosing to serve someone else in order to realize a goal. The United States was forged on principles like these. We are equals, taking different roles to fulfill shared objectives. When we become leaders, on the inside, as part of our character, we don’t quit enlisting, supporting or serving. In reality, we may enlist more, support more or serve more once we accept culpability for our personal leadership. (For more on this, see The Three Promises of Character-based Leadership.)

Our planet needs more exceptional leaders. No, we don’t need more people in positions of authority. Instead we want more character-based leaders both in and out of positions of authority. Be a leader. Choose to make a difference. Join someone or start something on your own. You don’t need my permission.

We can only all be leaders when we accept personal responsibility and choose to enlist of our own enlightened, free choice.

About the Authors:

Mike is the founder and Chief Instigator of the Lead Change Group, a global community driving a leadership revolution in business. Cynthia Stewart is the Managing Partner of Evermore Services, a transformative leadership development firm that helps growing businesses with a focus on Quality of work and life.   Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.