When I first became an acquisitions 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.
But 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 bestseller list and has now sold more than 2 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, podcasts, 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’s 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:
- 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, they embrace it.
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 the standards of acceptable behavior to their own followers.
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.
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.
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. “Yes” people aren’t very helpful in the long run. 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, to put it a different way: “How can I make make my boss more successful?”