I suspect that at some point just about every American child has been urged, “Be a leader, not a follower.” Schools promise to produce leaders; some even have incorporated it as part of their missions. Current leadership espouses distributed leadership. The idea is that everyone can be a leader in some form or fashion. How it manifests itself depends on context.
I embrace such thinking for several reasons. It chips away at traditional notions of leadership, many of which emphasize particular personality traits and hierarchy over other qualities. It’s more respectful of diverse individualism and nurtures greater motivation and commitment. Progress can come faster as more people paddle together. So I fully agree that we should be helping people learn how to lead better. My concern is with what we incorrectly put at the other end of the spectrum.
Follower is a pejorative. I understand why, given the way we often use it and the subsequent connotation. Certainly we don’t want someone to be simply a follower. However, I have a simply contention, albeit one that may initially seem counter intuitive. Just as we strive to teach leadership, we should be teaching wise followership. Who and how one follows factors heavily into one’s leadership, both as it initially forms and its evolution.
I’ve pondered this notion for a long time, and I’ve touched upon it briefly in various posts. Always present in my thinking to some degree, it’s come to the forefront recently as I’ve read a preview copy of Stephen Valentine and Reshan Richard’s book coming this July, Blending Leadership: Six Simple Beliefs for Leading Online and Off. (It’s a wonderful book with excellent insights about leadership in general, and I recommend people purchase a copy as soon as it comes out.)Two passages rekindled my thoughts on this topic. They write, “Our beliefs emerged from many places: from our own practice and observation; from the Ahmads who entered our lives with curiosity and playfulness, pushing us to turn over our perspectives; from our own leading and teaching, from our own leadership anthropology; from continual conversations with each other and with people at conferences and with authors we have only read. As we have tried things or tried them on and looked around or listened or succeeded or failed, belief statements cohered” (27). Shortly after, they point out that school leaders “not only follow thought leaders, but also engage actively with them, building off their work, their thinking, as if it were a platform” (36).
In so many ways, we become who we follow, consciously and unconsciously. It can be as large as adopting philosophies and practices to imitating physical mannerisms and verbal tics. It’s how we learn, beginning the moment we become aware of ourselves and others as unique beings, becoming stronger as we develop a sense of the person we wish to become. The danger comes when we lost that sense of self and begin to follow blindly, unthinkingly. Instead, it must be reflective, critical, challenging. It must hoist one out of any echo chamber.*
Essentially, it’s about learning. About oneself and about others and about the endless interactions between all those pieces. About possibilities. And the greatest possibilities are realized when we both lead and follow well.
*There are, of course, many ways one can practice good followership. Ideally, I would share some here. However, I think that would become too long a tangent from the principal arc of the post. Perhaps the next post…