Dear Eleanor and Wesley,
The magazine covers, the headlines, and the histories will all sell you on the notion of the singular sensation. We love to lift up the leader and usually just happen to forget everyone else. Actually, you may even have already been pushed to be a leader yourself (probably by me). When I look at it, I get this sense that the virtue of being a strong follower is way undersold. So I present to you my case for being a follower:
Followers get things done.
Leaders may shape the vision, but followers get things done. Few experiences are more satisfying than facing down a daunting, yet crucial task and coming through in the clutch. Any leader will tell you that a person who gets things done the right way the first time is worth their weight in gold. Shielded from the multi-faceted pressure of being in charge, a follower can focus on greatness in everything that they put their hand to. Being a great follower often means discovering and developing what it is that you do best.
Followers own the victory.
Leaders may get the credit, but anyone on the inside of greatness could list the key people that made the magic happen. Steve Jobs was an absolute visionary, however, without Johnny Ive there is no way that the iPhone comes to define the electronics industry the way it does today. Being an effective follower means siezing the opportunity to activate your ability for the cause of making something great. Why put in the work without getting the credit, you may ask? I’m convinced the spotlight is not all it is cracked up to be. Instead, pursuing excellence for the good of others will pay for more dividends. It is the doers who truly own success.
Followers become leaders.
I suppose we may imagine Napolean organizing his toddler empire while still in diapers, but if we dig down into the story of the celebrated leaders of history, I expect we would find at some point a time when they were nothing more than a good follower. The world of athletics gets this when the discussion brings up “coachability.” A player is never going to make it to the top of their game if they are so big-headed and puffed up with pride that they cannot work with a solid coach. Leaders are first and foremost learners. Oftentimes that means following in someone else’s footsteps for a time.
Before you think I’m selling you woefully short of your off-the-charts leadership potential, I’m going to admit that this idea of following well is no easy task. You know what is easy, following poorly. I’m talking about blind submission, unquestioning loyalty, and uninformed bandwagoning. There are no shortage of “leaders” lining up to get you to drink their particular cool-aide or manipulate you into buying into bad ideas hook, line and sinker. Following them would be easy, for a little while at least. Weak followership requires nothing, stands for nothing, and in the end means nothing.
The type of following I’m talking about takes all kinds of effort. I requires thoughtful engagement. It develops a strong sense of self while constantly fostering humility in relation to others in a group. A follower prizes opportunities to grow personally while consistently keeping a watchful eye for the good of others. A follower pushes towards a goal, also taking time to consider the implications of sucess. A follower is bold in loyalty even to the point where they must identify when things are headed in the wrong direction. Mostly importantly, a follower carefully considers whether a leader is worthy of following.
I have not always gotten it right, but deep down at the core of my being, I believe myself primarily to be a follower. If I have had any success in leading you both as my kids, or success leading others in whatever it is I’ve been doing, it will have been because I have followed well. Then again, it starts from the fact that I have found one who is truly worth following, or rather He found me. But you know all about that. I hope He has found you too.
“Leaders are first and foremost learners.” This is going on my classroom whiteboard.