Why the Best Leaders Are Great Followers

When I first became an acquistions editor, I took a proposal for a book on leadership to our Pub Board. (This is the group in a publishing company that determines what gets published and what doesn’t.) The consensus was that the book was not commercially viable. The market was just too small.

Ducks Following Their Mother - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/istock-dk, Image #14793457

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/istock-dk

However, in 1998 everything changed. Thomas Nelson published the The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell. I was the VP of Marketing at that time. My job was to help make the book a success.

Fortunately, John not only wrote a great book, but he worked tirelessly to help promote it. The result? The book hit the New York Times list and has now sold almost two million copies. It is still in Amazon’s top 1,000 books.

Since that time an entire industry has sprung up around the topic of leadership. It includes books, magazines, blogs, conferences, and even graduate degrees from major universities. Apparently, the market is vast. Why? Because nearly everyone sees him or herself as a leader.

But where are the followers?

I contend that if you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower. Although it is rarely discussed, this is where almost all of history’s greatest leaders got their start.

  • Joshua followed Moses for more than forty years before he led the children of Israel into the promised land.
  • Elisha served Elijah for ten years before he took up his master’s mantle and went on to perform even more miracles.
  • The Apostle Peter followed Jesus for three years—and made a lot of mistakes—before he and his fellow-disciples “turned the world upside down” (see Acts 17:6).

Though I don’t have time to develop it here, I would likewise contend that history’s worst leaders never learned to follow. As a result, they became tyrants, making the lives of their own followers miserable.

So what does a great follower look like? I would suggest great followers share at least five characteristics:

  1. They are clear. They understand their role. You can’t be a good follower unless you have clearly identified the leader. While you may be a leader in your own realm, everyone has a boss—including you. Great followers not only accept this fact but embrace it.
  2. They are obedient. While obedience may be a politically incorrect concept, it is essential for organizational effectiveness. No one should be allowed to give orders who can’t obey orders. This is how great leaders model to their own followers the standards of acceptable behavior.
  3. They are servants. This is crucial. Great followers are observant. They notice what needs to be done to help the leader accomplish his or her goals. Then they do it—joyfully, without grumbling or complaining.
  4. They are humble. Great followers don’t make it about them. They are humble. They shine the light on the leader. They make their own boss look good—especially in front of his or her boss.
  5. They are loyal. I have written on this before. Great followers never speak ill of their boss in public. This doesn’t mean they can’t disagree or even criticize. It just means that they don’t do it in public. Great followers understand that public loyalty leads to private influence.

I feel like I have only scratched the surface. If you want to be a great leader, begin by asking, “How can I be a better follower?” or “How can I make make my boss more successful?”

Question: What else does it take to be a great follower? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • 7 of 9

    Followers are principled, courageous and compassionate. They will speak up and tell the truth even when its difficult when they beleve the leader is off track or doing something harmful to themselves and others. They are compassionate in their delivery and their understanding that the leader is human and comes with a full package of shortcomings as well as brilliance.

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  • sjjjjjejjjjjx

    But there are follower, so leader can exsist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.mercer.10 Don Mercer

    The book Follow to Lead [www.follow-to-lead.com] answers the question you posed: How can I be a better follower?  It is kprinciple based through an unforgetable fable, outlines exactly what behaviors are critical and how to perform the, provides a lessons-learned section for leaders and describes how to implement a Followership Culture within any organization.
    It is a brief book [121 pages] for busy people who want just the nuggets so they can start Monday morning.

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  • Jon Morale

    What else does it take to be a great follower? They are also “GIFTED” with a unique capacity that fits them (the follower) with the LEADER. Eliazer to Abram( before the promised son) Joshua to Moses, David to Samuel, Aaron to Moses.
    This type of FOLLOWER is a life committed individual seeking only the benefit for their leader.

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  • Russ

    While my boss has had two overseas holidays (courtesy of the company) in this last month, I think I might focus on self improvement!

  • http://leadershipskillshq.com/ LeadershipSkillsHQ

    You cannot be a good leader if you are not a good follower. Before someone emerges to become a great leader, he must have an excellent training ground where he could acquire the necessary skills of an ideal leader. And there is no shortcut way of doing this, but only by becoming a good follower. You can become an outstanding leader only if you have the humility to allow someone “higher” than you to mentor and hone your skills and talents. I’d like to share this article that talks about ten leadership qualities every leader must possess- http://leadershipskillshq.com/the-top-10-leadership-qualities

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