Can you be a leader without followers?

  • Article
  • 20 January 2021

Lately, I’ve seen many references to ‘leading oneself’.

 

It always surprises me when I see this, as it seems to imply that you can be a leader on your own. To me, the term “lead” implicitly includes the existence of another party   who is led, guided, or influenced.

 

In the definition from Dictionary.com below, we see, in all three uses of ‘lead’, that this is the case.

 

verb (used with object), led, leading.

 

  1. to go before or with to show the way; conduct or escort: to lead a group on a cross-country hike.
  2. to conduct by holding and guiding: to lead a horse by a rope.
  3. to influence or induce; cause.

 

When I see references to self-leadership, I can’t resist a picture in my mind of me leading me, similar to someone leading a horse, except that I am both!

 

To engage in self-leadership would mean that I have no one to lead, guide, or influence through my role, except myself.

 

If we agree that it takes at least two parties to lead. And that leadership is about influencing, showing the way or guiding others, what’s followership about?

 

Being a follower seems to have gotten a bad rap. You see LinkedIn posts and graphics that distinguish being a leader as “good” and being a follower as “bad”. In general terms, these posts indicate that leaders create vision, motivate, light a fire under others, while followers don’t have vision and find it hard to motivate others, let alone themselves! Pretty much black and white.

 

I don’t accept the premise that leadership is good, and followership is bad.

 

Without leaders, there wouldn’t be any followers. And, if the world was full of leaders, how would things get done?

 

An individual who is a leader in one situation, may not be a leader in another, regardless of his or her title. Followers may have excellent vision and have the ability to support and motivate the leader and the rest of the team, while the leader sits back and ensures everything is running smoothly. Leadership and followership are a product of circumstance.

 

If leaders have followers, isn’t it logical that leaders themselves are followers of the leader that they report to? Aren’t all leaders followers in some fashion? Even the CEO or President of a company is influenced, guided and advised by the Board.

 

Let’s get rid of this arbitrary distinction between leaders and followers and talk about each in positive terms, acknowledging that everyone has a role to play. We must be reminded that all roles are equally valuable to an organization.

 

 

Back to the initial question, do you think that you can you be a leader without followers? Talk to me, share your thoughts and ideas on this question.

 

Dr. Wilma Slenders PhD, PCC

Dr. Wilma Slenders is a renowned change management facilitator, leadership coach, and strategic advisor for organizations of all sizes and industries. Her insights come from over 20 years of hands-on experience and thousands of hours of teaching, consulting on, planning, and executing long-term professional leadership strategies and organizational strategies.

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