Do Something: Let's Hear It for the Little Guys

We glorify our leaders and praise our visionary entrepreneurs, but Nancy Lublin says we should focus on the followers — the people who get things done.

We're obsessed with leadership. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to leadership. Corporations spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on leadership retreats. At some universities, you can even major in leadership. Venture-capital money flows like water into the hands of founders who are labeled "visionary" and "at the vanguard." And what's sexier these days than the words "I started my own blah blah blah"?

I think we've got it wrong. We've overdone this whole leadership/founder/entrepreneur thing. And we're not spending nearly enough time crediting the folks who turn all that visionary stuff into tangible reality: the chief operating officers, the midlevel managers, the staffers. If the word didn't have a pejorative tinge to it, I guess you'd call them followers.

We degrade the very idea of followers — lemmings! — yet the world needs people who can follow intelligently. I am not talking about mindless armies that march in formation and shoot if their leader points down a dark hallway. The key word is "intelligently." Good followers ask good questions. They probe their leaders. They crunch the numbers to ensure that their visionary boss's gorgeous plan actually works. "But I want to be Han Solo," you say. "Who wants to be a follower?!" Exactly! We don't even have a positive iconic image for someone who isn't a leader.

This isn't just semantics. Our leadership obsession has real, unfortunate effects. For instance, there's a totally unevenly sliced pie when it comes to rewards. In wonkier terms, you'd call that a resource-allocation problem: While CEOs represent the smallest part of our labor pyramid, a disproportionate amount of time and money is spent grooming them, charting who's about to join their ranks, and celebrating "their" achievements (hello, fat pay packages!). I'm not saying we should stop honoring people like Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America and has led it all these years. But what about Jerry Hauser? Wait, you've never heard of him? For six years, he was the chief operating officer of Teach for America, and he's the guy whom everyone, including Wendy, credits with bringing top-notch management systems to that organization.

We have too many wannabe leaders. This doesn't sound like a bad thing — the next generation should have dreams and ambitions. But which ones? The drive to start, grow, be in charge of something — anything! — has spawned a generation of people hunched over laptops at Starbucks, yearning for that big idea that will make them the next Larry or Sergey. But not everyone can create the Google of the future, and many of those who don't will think they're failures. In fact, they're just chasing the wrong dream. I recently met someone who said, "I'm the guy who makes sure the bills are paid and the numbers make sense, and I like that. I've got no desire to be the CEO." The working world would be a happier place if more of us aspired to roles that were just right — if we valued job fit and performance at every level and stopped overemphasizing the very top.

Fundamentally, though, mine is not a touchy-feely, "workers of the world unite" argument. The underappreciation of followers has a major bottom-line consequence: crazy redundancy. You can see it in the not-for-profit sector, which has a gazillion little organizations replicating one another. We all want to run our own thing, so not-for-profits never die. As a result, we have huge inefficiency and ridiculous amounts of overlap in the sector. This is wasteful, and this is fundamentally bad business.

Honoring good followers isn't just a nice thing — it's necessary. It's the sanest, smartest way to run your company, for-profit or not. We have to recognize that your bright ideas — and mine — would go nowhere without the doers. Failing to do so will make us collectively poorer, not just in spirit but in money.

Nancy Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success and CEO of DoSomething, is grateful to her team for making her look so good.

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22 Comments

  • Jay Rhoderick

    I loved the article, Nancy!

    "Follow the follower" is the advice given by the legendary improvisation guru Viola Spolin. She saw that groups making things up together need to make each other look good in order for the game, story, or scene to go anywhere coherent. If everyone claims the throne, then there's no community and no critical mass of improvising minds, focusing on one thing and driving it forward. If there are no supporters giving support to the person initiating an idea, and exploring that idea's potential with him or her, then we have chaos. We have (God forbid) a stage full of one-man shows.

    I like what you wrote about the waste and chaos of a million redundant autonomous non-profits--each "leading" in a different way. In the theatre as in other business, valuable performance time (and the audience's attention span) get exhausted quickly if there is no single clear story being told. That can ONLY happen if the members of the ensemble follow strongly, creatively, and with a genuine desire to make the group look good by making the leader (and her idea) look interesting. That's when the show grabs the audience and creates an effective performance product!

    Jay Rhoderick
    @Bizprov

  • Jay Rhoderick

    I loved the article, Nancy!

    "Follow the follower" is the advice given by the legendary improvisation guru Viola Spolin. She saw that groups making things up together need to make each other look good in order for the game, story, or scene to go anywhere coherent. If everyone claims the throne, then there's no community and no critical mass of improvising minds, focusing on one thing and driving it forward. If there are no supporters giving support to the person initiating an idea, and exploring that idea's potential with him or her, then we have chaos. We have (God forbid) a stage full of one-man shows.

    I like what you wrote about the waste and chaos of a million redundant autonomous non-profits--each "leading" in a different way. In the theatre as in other business, valuable performance time (and the audience's attention span) get exhausted quickly if there is no single clear story being told. That can ONLY happen if the members of the ensemble follow strongly, creatively, and with a genuine desire to make the group look good by making the leader (and her idea) look interesting. That's when the show grabs the audience and creates an effective performance product!

    Jay Rhoderick
    @Bizprov

  • Jay Rhoderick

    I loved the article, Nancy!

    "Follow the follower" is the advice given by the legendary improvisation guru Viola Spolin. She saw that groups making things up together need to make each other look good in order for the game, story, or scene to go anywhere coherent. If everyone claims the throne, then there's no community and no critical mass of improvising minds, focusing on one thing and driving it forward. If there are no supporters giving support to the person initiating an idea, and exploring that idea's potential with him or her, then we have chaos. We have (God forbid) a stage full of one-man shows.

    I like what you wrote about the waste and chaos of a million redundant autonomous non-profits--each "leading" in a different way. In the theatre as in other business, valuable performance time (and the audience's attention span) get exhausted quickly if there is no single clear story being told. That can ONLY happen if the members of the ensemble follow strongly, creatively, and with a genuine desire to make the group look good by making the leader (and her idea) look interesting. That's when the show grabs the audience and creates an effective performance product!

    Jay Rhoderick
    @Bizprov

  • Ira Chaleff

    Kudos to Nancy Lublin for highlighting the follower role. However, it is not just a matter of being “good followers”, we also need “courageous followers”. What’s a courageous follower? It’s someone who gives dynamic leaders full support for their groundbreaking and sometimes scary innovations, while being equally willing to tell those leaders when their actions are counterproductive to their own goals, the company’s mission or the core values of the company and society. I discuss what this takes and how to do it well in my book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now in its third edition. I believe this is the book mentioned in another comment here by Jill Malleck. Thanks Jill! Ira Chaleff http://www.courageousfollower....

  • Ed Wojcicki

    We may have less of a problem with leadership than followership. That's what Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills wrote in his book on leadership, Certain Trumpets, in 1995. Since then, I've suggested to a lot of people that I'd like to tackle a book on followership. EVERYONE said don't do it because nobody wants to be a follower. So thanks to Nancy for this article, and to the many commenters who agree.

  • Rod Brazier

    Well said! And in response to the singular dissenting voice (above), I say organizations may be started by those who say "what exists isn't good enough" (although I think there's more to it than that), but they grow and thrive through the efforts of followers who ask that very same question -- and go out and do it -- in support of the leader's vision.
    Thanks Nancy and FC for reminding us that what we need are "leader-full" organizations in which everyone is inspired by -- and willingly contributes to fulfilling the purpose of the enterprise.

    --
    Rod Brazier

  • Lloyd Lemons

    This is a great article! We need to appreciate the Worker Bees of the world. Without them nothing would get accomplished.

  • Varun Arora

    Good article? Great article? What, are you kidding or just anxious to post your comments and "see your name in print" (well, pixels)?

    Progress, development, everything we know and love about our culture was founded on someone saying "what exists isn't good enough, I can do better" and going out and doing it. Whether it's "yet another coffee shop" or "yet another gas station" (well, perhaps not the gas station...), people wanting to be their own bosses and innovating and leading is what drives economies.

    Or would you have the world follow Nehruvian India, where redundancy in businesses was considered a waste and therefore consumers had no choice and therefore manufacturers had no reason to improve quality or reduce prices or increase output or...?

    Seriously, I'm a huge fan of Fast Company but this is tripe.

  • Stefan Taal

    Ok, I do have to admit now though that I have been sitting behind my laptop for hours seeing if I could get some idea started. Yes, it's utterly frustrating, so articles like this one are just really great!

  • Stefan Taal

    Let's face it: what is the ratio of leaders vs. followers? If such an large amount of stuff can be written (and money be made) on leadership it seems to me there must be an enormous market for books on followership (although, indeed, you might want to use some more fancy word). Anyone in Starbucks looking for his breakthrough idea: this one's for free!

  • David Yorka

    This is one of the best articles on the subject and when framed in a Nonprofit context you really amped it up. I am glad you are writing for F.C.!

    "He who leads must follow."
    ~?

  • David Yorka

    This is one of the best articles on the subject and when framed in a Nonprofit context you really amped it up. I am glad you are writing for F.C.!

    "He who leads must follow."
    ~?

  • David Yorka

    This is one of the best articles on the subject and when framed in a Nonprofit context you really amped it up. I am glad you are writing for F.C.!

    "He who leads must follow."
    ~?

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    Does anyone have an example of a good follower they can point to? Or, perhaps not because we don't laud them enough to be in the literature?

    --
    @ferenstein

  • Jason Lombard

    Very similar to the talk that Mike Rowe gave at the TED conference last year. In that talk he referenced the lack of respect in modern society for people who do real, physical labor for a living. The glue that hold society together if you will. It's worth watching, find it at http://www.ted.com.

  • Allen Laudenslager

    Several years ago I wrote a piece on followership and how the drive for "leadership" was distorting how teams function and making it harder for teams to get things done. There is an old joke about a the order an officer gives to raise a flagpole - Sargent, raise that flagpole. Without the guy who knows how, the flagpole is still on the ground.

  • Jill Malleck

    Nancy, great article. Years ago I came across a wonderful book called Courageous Followers. It outlined how "followers" can take the lead. I believe that in places where too much attention goes to leaders a kind of passive-aggressiveness takes hold. In hierarchies where followers feel disempowered and unrecognized, they find subtle and sometimes aggressive ways to assert themselves. The newest succession planning literature guards against "grooming" for leadership, and advocates inviting people to self-select. I am not worried about the future. The young people I know are not that interested in a top-down style of leadership. Collaborative, participative leadership is part of how the next generation plays on-line games - its being bred in their bones.

  • Heath Arensen

    Brilliant. I am in the category of one awed by and aspiring towards leadership. This was also the attribute I looked for most when I hired people. Those hunched over their laptops for hours striving and hoping for the day that they would emerge as leaders. But recently I've been reflecting on the value of those who love work for works sake. No aspiration to be the boss, just to create beauty. Bravo to singing their praises.