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.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.