If Leaders Require Followers, How Do I Lead So That Others Will Follow?

At the risk of stating the obvious, if a person wants to become a leader, and, consequently, wants others to follow her or him, the would-be leader must provide the would-be followers with a reason to follow her or him. Some people label that reason “vision,” a term that has become controversial perhaps through overuse or misunderstanding. Some might be more comfortable with the term “direction” rather than vision; if you want to lead somebody somewhere, most people might consider it reasonable to know where you want to go with them. So, if you want somebody to follow you, having someplace to go is a good starting point.

Having someplace to go is necessary but not entirely sufficient to becoming a leader. The would-be followers eventually need to decide that your chosen destination is interesting, if not desirable, to them. Some leaders need to convince the followers to head in the chosen direction; other leaders may have followers who are more willing. A former pastor of mine was fond of observing that when a crowd is determined to run you out of town get in front and make it look like you are leading a parade! While that is cute, if not humorous, in such a scenario I would argue that the person in front is not the leader but the led. The direction or vision apparently needs to be compelling, if not clear.

The direction does not need a clear or pre-determined path. Since the advent of participative management, leaders seem more inclined to seek input from the followers in determining how to get to the chosen destination. The leader may actually begin to manage a process of determining the appropriate path, including how to overcome obstacles along the way. The leader’s job is to keep everybody moving in the appropriate direction. When the followers are in doubt or disagreement, the followers may look to the leader for guidance. Here, an important distinction seems to emerge – while managers can be imposed on subordinates, leaders lead at the discretion and by the permission of the followers. If followers choose not to follow a would-be leader, the followers are implicitly or explicitly choosing a new leader.

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