Which First, Leaders or Followers?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal* extolled the virtues of good followership, pointing out that not everyone can be in charge. I agree, although I think good following is much more than the one example the article cites — speaking up when your boss is wrong.

My experience, however, is that good followers won’t exist in situations with bad leadership, and good followers cannot create good leadership. Good followers won’t stay around to be poorly led.

Good leaders don’t always initially have good followers, but they’ll find or create them. If they have a group of poor followers for an extended period, then they aren’t good leaders. I’ve never seen a good leader who allowed or fostered poor followership.

I slept through a few of my college logic classes, but let’s try this. … If good leadership is necessary for success and if good leadership can create good followers (sometimes having to find new ones) and if good followers cannot create good leaders, then you must start with good leadership. It’s a sequence thing.

You shortchange yourself when you hire less than good (heck, go for great!) leaders whether or not you have good followers. Spend the extra dollars, extend the recruiting deadline and do the additional interviews, but don’t destroy value and lose good followers because of poor leadership.

I’m looking forward to reading “Leadership Is Half the Story,” and perhaps the authors would agree with my logic. I worry, however, that misinterpreting the need for followership by people in leadership roles would cause some to say, “I’m fine; it’s those people out there who are the problem!” Leaders before followers.


*S. Shellenbarger, “Leader? No, Be a Follower,” The Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2015, p. D1, writing about the book “Leadership Is Half the Story.”


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