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Leaders matter. So do followers

If the leadership industry is to realize its promise and potential, it will have to evolve. It will have to become, like the rest of America, more inclusive.

Leaders matter. So do followers
[Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash]

We both spend our lives researching, teaching, and writing about leadership and agree with the conventional wisdom that leaders are important. Good leaders and bad leaders and the overwhelming importance of each have become a fixation, an obsession even. There are numberless leadership centers, institutes, and programs; courses, seminars, and workshops, experts, coaches, and gurus—all narrowly focused on leaders at the expense of everyone else, including their followers—confirming that point.

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Nowhere is this unhealthy fascination more prevalent than in America, where the virtues of individualism have always been celebrated over the virtues of the commons. The result is a cult of leadership that veritably worships those who attain status and power while under-appreciating and even undermining the inevitable counterpart of leaders: their followers.

Again, we do not question the importance of leaders. Academic literature regularly reiterates that leaders generally have some measure of power, authority, and influence over their followers. For example, some studies show that 30% of the variability in team performance can be directly attributed to leaders, their personalities, their values, and the decisions they make.

This is not, however, to say that followers are unimportant. Yet judging by the attention they receive—in business, in government, in the academy—followers would seem to be completely inconsequential. Quite the opposite. Though they are not usually as impactful as leaders, they can be. Moreover, they routinely influence their leader’s behaviors, nudge, or even push them in one direction or another. Which is as it should be. After all, leaders and followers are inextricably entwined. It is impossible to have a leader without at least one follower.

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Consider a recent report by the New York Times, which revealed that three lawyers stopped former President Donald Trump from firing acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen in the final days of his term. They threatened to resign, as one, if he did. Trump thought to dump Rosen in favor of a toady who agreed to do what Trump told him to do: use the Justice Department to compel lawmakers in Georgia to overturn the results of the state’s presidential election.

The three attorneys who told Trump they would quit the administration rather than stay silent while Trump violated the spirit if not also the letter of the law were good followers. They were subordinate to the president, but they were unwilling to play a subordinate role. Instead, they banded together to resist a leader who already was, or was threatening to become, a transgressor.

Good followers decline to follow leaders who are dangerously bad. And good followers line up behind leaders who are good or, at least, good enough. Similarly, bad followers follow leaders even if they are dangerously bad. And bad followers decline to follow leaders who are good or, at least, good enough.

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Why then are followers widely ignored and excluded nearly entirely from the leadership industry? It makes no sense. More precisely, while it makes no sense on the surface, it does if you follow the money. The leadership industry is a money-making business in which individuals and institutions, groups, and organizations pay money—big money—to get people to learn how to lead.

Whether or not the investment pays off is a separate question. Does it make sense to try to develop good leaders without, at the same time, trying to develop good followers?

Relative to leaders, followers were once of scant importance. Certainly in the distant past, leaders had virtually all the advantages. In addition to almost all the power, authority, and influence they had other assets, such as almost all the information. But times change. Over time power and influence have devolved, authority has been devalued, and information has become widely disseminated. Moreover, our ideas have changed including our understanding of who has a right to do what to whom.

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In the last half-century especially, changes in culture and technology—social media particularly—have forever altered relations between leaders and followers. As every leader of a certain age will testify, no matter in which sector, including in addition to business and government, the military, education, and religion, leaders in liberal democracies have become weaker and their followers stronger. Woe now to CEOs who ignore advisory boards or activist investors, clients, customers, or suppliers, the press or the public, or for that matter Facebook, Twitter, or the numberless other platforms on which they are being graded—and degraded. Evaluated at every turn not by other leaders but by followers. By ordinary people who feel more entitled than ever before to pass judgment on those more highly placed than they.

Notice the recent furor when it emerged that troops in Washington DC to protect the inaugural proceedings had been ordered to sleep in an unheated garage? The outrage was so great—”We feel incredibly betrayed,” said one Guardsman— that President Joe Biden personally called the chief of the National Guard Bureau to apologize.

We do not advocate the virtues of anyone sleeping on the floor of a parking garage, least of all during a pandemic. We are nevertheless pointing out that a generation or two ago such follower outrage—publicly expressed no less—would have been inconceivable. We are similarly pointing out that if such an outcry had come to pass, an apology from the Oval Office would not likely have been forthcoming.

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We live in a time when teaching people how to lead wisely and well will no longer suffice—if it ever did. For the system to work and for cooperation, collaboration, and compromise regularly to take place, teaching people how to follow wisely and well must be equally important. If the leadership industry is to realize its promise and potential, it will have to evolve. It will have to become, like the rest of America, more inclusive.

Sometimes good followers do not follow. Sometimes they resist, as opposed to mutely going along with, bad leaders. The importance of this point is impossible to overestimate. For if we are ever going to learn how stop or at least slow bad leadership, learning to be a good follower will be key.


Barbara Kellerman is James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her most recent book is Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy.

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His most recent book is Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).


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