Follow the Leader

We are all probably familiar with that game “follow the leader” from our childhood where the followers are supposed to mimic the leader. I can’t even remember the last time I mimicked. Leaders are not mythical or super heroes, at least the ones I’m familiar with are not – every so-called leader I know is flesh and blood, and some deserved to be followed while others didn’t. Assuming we don’t mimic, why do we follow leaders?

Effective leaders inspire, motivate and connect us to the vision. Leadership is not always about creating the vision, in fact, I would argue that most of the time leaders are not in the vision creation business. Fred Kofman, a vice president at the social media firm Linkedin, says that true leaders inspire the “followers” to follow the vision, not the leader. The vision is created by the organization and the leader is just the closest one to it. It may look like everyone is following the leader but everyone is trying to get the goal.

Well-known leadership author Gilbert Fairholm had this to say about the relationship between the vision and core values: “A vision encompasses both the present and the future potential and values core of the followers. Vision statements are how leaders communicate or articulate the vision to followers.”

So what’s the relationship between leading and following, and are these mutually exclusive? Michael Gibson of Global Managing said, “If following is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.” He goes on to say, “Leaders must inspire others to follow and those who follow must believe and know that someday they will lead and take on their roles with the vision and also inspire others to greatness.”

I am reminded of something I learned back in the Dark Ages of the Overland Park’s first Leadership Forum class, we can all lead, no matter where we are in the organization or our role in life. The concept that everyone is a leader in the organization sounds good, but is not universally embraced. Not everyone sees opportunities to lead or, for that matter, wants to lead. Instead of thinking only in terms of formal leadership, like a supervisor or team lead, it was easier to help folks see that leadership can happen using this thing called “sphere of influence.” Now, is influence the same as leadership? Not exactly, but they share some of the same qualities, and both have the ability to be a compelling force to effect action or the behavior of others.

Warren Bennis, a pioneer in Leadership studies, once said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Leadership comes from those in formal positions of power, like a supervisor or committee chair, but also comes from followers, who like the “leaders” are just striving toward the goal. Leaders and followers are often just terms, and not indicative of the action taking place, especially if everyone is working towards the goal. In reality, most followers do not try to mimic the leader, why should they? Followers can lead by example, especially if they “get” the vision and truly embrace the organization’s core values. While there may not be any mimicking, they may be listening closely to what Simon says.


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