Leadership is all the rage. If you want to be a better leader, there’s a whole genre of books out there to tell you how to do it. Thousands of web articles have been written on the topic. Entire organizations have arisen with the purpose of training people how to become more effective leaders. No one ever stops to ask why we would even want to be leaders. The assumption as that it’s something we should strive for–that leading is better than following.
But is following really all that bad? We don’t see many books or articles written on “followership.” Not many people are interested in becoming better followers. The very notion strikes at our sense of autonomy and self-respect. Why would we want to learn how to follow people? What good would that do us? Well, I’m glad you asked…
Followers are learners. The more you follow, the more knowledge you gain. As a leader, you may begin to think you’ve got it all figured out. Following brings you back down to reality and enables you to continually teach yourself new things.
Followers use social media such as Facebook and Twitter as a news feed to gather information rather than as a broadcast platform to promote their ideas. Followers go to networking events to collect business cards and learn about other industries rather than going to distribute business cards and promote themselves.
Followers are students. They’re always looking for an opportunity to learn rather than an opportunity to teach. And, as we all know, knowledge is power.
When you focus exclusively on being a leader, you miss the opportunities to learn from other leaders. Adopting the posture of a follower allows you to find a special guide that will teach you how to navigate life.
Mentors have the power to inspire us to become better human beings. If you ask many of the great thinkers, creators, or leaders what they attribute their success to, they will probably mention a mentor who showed them the way.
When you declare yourself a follower, you open up the door for a mentor to take you under his or her wing. There are always people out there willing to show you the way; you just have to be enough of a follower to let them.
Creative people aren’t so much creative as they are resourceful. The most innovative people will freely admit that they’ve simply built on the insights that came before them.
Creative people borrow. Painters follow the techniques of other painters. Writers follow the literary devices of other writers. Superman, our most iconic of superheros, was fashioned from the creators’ obsession with the pulp fiction and detective stories of their childhood.
If you aren’t following other people and ideas in your field, you simply will have no fodder for your creativity. Inspiration doesn’t arise from a vacuum. It comes from other creative people making things that they too borrowed from other people. If you aren’t following, you aren’t creating.
Leaders can become detached from their communities. You don’t engage much with other people when you are on the high horse or in the ivory tower. Interaction happens on the ground level.
When you are a follower, you interact with other followers. Being part of the “fan club” is less about being a “fan” than it is about being in the “club.” You share ideas with people and build relationships that will last a lifetime.
Following makes people like you. It says to those gathered around, “Hey, I’m one of you.” When you follow, you become part of a community of followers. And we’re social creatures. The community is everything.
When you follow a certain set of ideas, values, or rules, you become accountable to those concepts. Whether it’s a religious group, a political group, a professional group, or a social group, you take on responsibility when you become a member of the tribe.
When people are counting on you, you become more disciplined. You manage your time and tasks more effectively. You become less lazy and more motivated. There’s nothing quite like somebody watching you to convince you to get stuff done.
Following makes you responsible. If you want to continue to be accepted in the community of followers, you’ve got to contribute. You’ve got to be dependable. And, as you become more accountable to others, you will also become more accountable to yourself.
Many times, leaders will persist in a certain direction even when it doesn’t make sense. They feel like they are tied to the decisions they’ve made and changing their minds will make them look weak.
As a follower, you always have an out. If necessary, you can always abandon the cause in favor of more noble ones. You can always pivot into a more profitable direction. No one is looking at you, so you can more easily make a change.
Following enables you to be nimble. It gives you the flexibility to dodge obstacles and travel down a series of paths that make the most sense. When you are following, you choose what you follow. Leaders don’t always have that luxury.
The best leaders start out as followers. You become a leader, not by asserting your authority, but rather by spending a lifetime following the right things. Leaders are people who have mastered all of the things mentioned above: learning, being mentored, fueling their creativity, participating in the community, increasing their accountability, and being willing to adapt.
Leaders are people who have mastered followership. They have paid their dues and now people see them as someone worth following. Followers are leaders in the making.
As you can probably gather, I am not suggesting that you blindly follow whichever person, organization, or idea that you stumble across. “Blind” following never did anyone any good. But, if you follow with intention–with the desire to grow and better yourself as a person, the results will blow you away.
The key is to follow the right things. And when you can develop the wisdom to know the difference, following will change your life.
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