by Elisebeth VanderWeil, Ph.D.
Many people aspire to be good – or even great – leaders; few aspire to be good – let alone great – followers. However, odds are most people who prepare to lead rarely do so beyond the team or group level; others who do eventually reach powerful positions of leadership spend a significant chunk of time as followers before they get there. On the whole, with all our study and practice of leadership knowledge and skills, we spend most of our time and energy following.
So why learn leadership if one’s chances of being a powerful leader are so slim?
For one, leadership is not something that can be wielded only by "official" leaders. It is a powerful tool in any realm in which a group of people want to accomplish something. Whether your group is three or thirty, hierarchical or egalitarian, your skills and awareness of leadership will have a significant influence on whether or not the work is accomplished effectively.
Secondly, if you can put your ego to good use and "hitch your star" to a great leader, you can still be part of accomplishing great things. Your ability to recognize quality, effective leadership as it is enacted by someone else will give you the advantage of joining with that leader to support, reflect, and expand the adaptive outcomes you both envision beyond what either of you could do alone.
Finally, the rate of change in our complex world is spinning out so fast, the followers of today can be the leaders of tomorrow and tomorrow's leaders are next week's followers. As with leaders, followers operate along a spectrum of multiple perspectives and roles from interactive, to independent, to passive. If you have the skills, knowledge and experience as both an accomplished follower – someone who supports and enriches the work of the leader – and that of an accomplished leader; you have far more opportunities to experience success than someone with skills in only one realm.
Being a great follower is not recognized by our culture as vital to great leaders, but it most certainly is. The interactive relationship of leaders and followers is the core of the leadership process. Thus, more and more leadership scholars and practitioners are joining a growing chorus singing the praises of "followership." As with many, many women leaders who have gone unrecognized for their work for the "greater good" (ex. Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Wangari Maathai) the growing recognition and value of followership is changing not only what, but how we understand leaders and leadership.
VanderWeil works as the Director of Organizational Leadership at Mountain State University and holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University. Her seemingly disconnected yet thematic work experience has provided her with the skills and experience to remain curious, flexible, decisive, and knowledgeable in many realms.