Can Leaders Be Followers?

Jim Kouzes

Q: Can leaders be followers too?

A: YES, ABSOLUTELY!

"A good leader is also a good follower," Susan Wong, financial analyst at Apple, told us. "This may sound like a paradox," she continued, "but based on my experience I notice that good leaders understand boundaries and are willing to accept sound advice from followers."

Too many leaders think that they should know it all, be able to do it all, and always be in charge. But Susan reminds us that the best leaders are self-aware enough to realize their limitations and secure enough to know they can let go of control and let others take charge.

The key to high performance is not simply good leaders but good leadership. In the set of skills and abilities, and in the highest performing organizations, the emphasis is on following the process, not the person, So if we were to look at leadership and followership though this lens, here's what we'd be asking people to follow:

  • A clear set of values and beliefs consistent with their own
  • A vision of the future that they share.
  • Creative ideas that enable the organization to make changes so that the values and vision can be realized
  • Other people whose strengths and talents contribute to realizing shared values and vision, and teams whose collective capacity is greater than our own.
  • Our hearts and the esteem we have for the people who make it possible for us to get extraordinary things done

From this perspective, we are all followers of a way-a path to making a difference in the world. Leaders are asking people to follow a process and it is in this way that leaders should always think of themselves as followers.

If leaders kept this in mind, then leadership could move around the organization-up, down, sideways, in, and out. Leaders would be thinking of what's best for the mission, not what's best for them.

There's another important reason for leaders to follow. No one person can do it alone. The idea of being the in-charge leader-the one who is supposed to do anything that is required and be better than anyone else, the charismatic bigger-than-life personality, the warrior charging in on a white horse to single-handedly save the day-is daunting. But what happens when we set aside this heroic myth and realize that leaders are not independent of others but, more to the point, dependent upon the energies and efforts of others? What happens is that we're more effective as leaders. We admit that we can't do it alone, and we then begin to develop and utilize the full potential of everyone.

RELATED RESOURCES