Followers Create The Best Leaders

Dec. 21, 2004

Recently I discovered an ancient Arabian proverb that described four sorts of men. I found its wisdom so universal that I took the liberty of adapting its logic to describe four sorts of leaders:

  • Leaders who know not, and know not that they know not, are fools. Shun them.
  • Leaders who know not, and know that they know not, are simpletons. Teach them.
  • Leaders who know, and know not that they know, are sleepers. Wake them.
  • Leaders who know, and know that they know, are wise. Follow them.
In a utopian world we would all work for leaders who are wise. We would follow those leaders blindly, devotedly, happily, and unquestioningly. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and in the real world many of our corporate corner offices are occupied by fools, simpletons, and sleepers. Therefore, those of us who work for chief executives who are less than wise must decide whether we are going to shun them, teach them, or awaken them. Shunning fools is easy -- just change jobs. But, remember, changing your job isn't foolproof. There's a better-than-average chance you'll end up working for an even bigger fool. Teaching simpletons is impossible. Simpletons are simpletons. Awakening sleepers? It's not easy. Awakening sleepers requires followers with consummate skill, creativity, patience, and a high degree of selflessness. Any would-be leader-maker who has a problem playing second fiddle in the corporate symphony should never attempt to awaken a sleeping prodigy. I contend that followers create leaders. As any good follower knows, making leaders out of sleepers is a lot like growing children. If we spank them, they hit back. If we ridicule them, they become reclusive or defensive. But if we use tolerance, they eventually learn patience. If we use encouragement, they eventually learn confidence. If we give deserved praise, they eventually learn appreciation. If we apply fairness, they eventually learn justice. If we make them feel secure, they eventually learn to believe. If we show we like them, they eventually learn to like themselves. If we make them feel appreciated, they eventually grow to be wise. Leaders who think they can lead followers anywhere they want to go are naive. Leaders can lead followers only where followers are willing to go. Every good follower knows what so many would-be leaders don't: The key to effective leadership is not equal treatment of all followers, but rather the unequal treatment of followers with unequal talents. To treat all unequals equally is the single gravest error most leaders make. Effective leadership must be individualized leadership because while followers may be born equal, the good ones don't stay equal very long. Experienced followers know that leaders stop leading when they grow tired of leading, so smart followers reinforce their best leaders by showing them their leadership is not only needed but appreciated. By doing so, however, followers must accept responsibility for their leaders' actions. Inevitably, followers create the kind of leaders they deserve. Some management cogno-scenti may take exception to my premise that followers create leaders. If you are one of them, let me suggest that you have been looking at my premise from only one side. It reminds me of a story told about the writer Peter Benchley, who as a student at Harvard took a course in international relations. Benchley, whose mind was agile but who didn't exercise it with strenuous studying, came into his final exam unprepared. He was faced with this question: "Discuss the influence of the northern fisheries case upon international relations." Benchley pondered a bit and then began his essay with this statement: "I shall now discuss the northern fisheries case from the point of view of the fish." Any discussion of leadership is far more revealing when studied from the point of view of the follower.

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