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Leaders are nothing without followers

Leaders get all the credit.

Nearly 100,000 soldiers and sailors followed Alexander the Great on his Asian campaign. Yet his is the only name we remember.
Countless individuals worked tirelessly to make the iPhone a reality. But Steve Jobs receives all the credit.

Although you could fill a medium-sized city with the individuals who together have served more than 300 billion McDonalds hamburgers, founder Ray Kroc is the only one we memorialize.

In Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the resolute leader leans in while his unnamed oarsmen gamely push through water and ice.

The great man naturally draws our attention, while those who follow him just as naturally fade into the background.

Nevertheless, while leaders are essential to just about every human endeavor, I would like to see some credit shifted to the many forgotten people who follow them.

The New York Times recently featured an article titled “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.” Susan Cain, the author, wrote: “Our elite schools overemphasize leadership partly because they’re preparing students for the corporate world, and they assume this is what businesses need. But a discipline in organizational psychology, called ‘followership,’ is gaining in popularity.”

Cain continued: “Some focus on the ‘romance of leadership’ theory, which causes us to inaccurately attribute all of an organization’s success and failure to its leader, ignoring its legions of followers.”

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if every one of Microsoft’s more than 120,000 employees report for work each morning while imagining him or herself a mini Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer, rather than dedicating themselves to the execution of strategies put into place by Microsoft’s leadership team.

Forbes magazine recently featured an article titled “Why Followership Is Now More Important Than Leadership.” The author, Rob Asghar, seeded these thoughts regarding leadership and followership:

Good followers nurture good leaders. Consider the situation in which a company hires a new leader. This leader may possess all the personal and professional attributes required to help the company achieve success. However, it only stands to reason his or her first few months will be spent climbing a learning curve. Generous followers can help the new leader quickly climb this curve so he or she can begin to make a positive difference for all members of the organization. By understanding his or her success depends on followers’ goodwill and guidance, a skilled, thoughtful leader will consciously solicit it.

Good leaders nurture followers. Who doesn’t applaud the young man or woman who appears ready to assume the mantle of leadership? They are placed in offices with a clear shot to the corner office, and are assigned glamorous accounts. The skilled leader, though, will also support valuable employees who do not seek the spotlight. These individuals may be better suited to leading with their brains or emotional IQ, rather than through force of will and personality. Good leaders nurture all followers, not just those who are most easily seen.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who enjoyed a wide radio and television audience during the past century, would remind his listeners and viewers: “There is no pleasure without pain, no Easter without Good Friday.”

We can add that there are no leaders without followers. If one cannot exist without the other, we must conclude both are equally valuable and both deserve our support.

Companies that establish programs to help their employees become better followers will gain a better, brighter future. I suggest remembering the following:

– When interviewing job candidates, keep in mind the overwhelming majority of new recruits will be hired to follow rather than to lead. This is not to suggest select individuals who assume followership positions won’t also be called upon to lead. For example, individuals who follow the lead set by senior management may also lead internal departments. They may also lead committees and internal initiatives. What I am suggesting is don’t pass over candidates who possess otherwise excellent qualifications due to a perceived deficiency in leadership qualities if you aren’t interviewing for a leadership position.

– Just as too many cooks crowd the kitchen, too many leaders will inevitably crowd the corner office. Properly managed businesses will strike a balance between leadership and followership.

– By placing undue emphasis on the importance of leadership, we diminish the importance of followership. Followers will always vastly outnumber leaders. It will never make sense to nurture the few while overlooking the many.

– By fetishizing leadership, we run the risk of perpetuating a destructive caricature. The forceful leader who makes quick decisions and takes no advice is a popular meme. However, it describes only one leadership style and so is one-dimensional. It also discourages a brave, open, healthy dialogue between leaders and their followers.

– Develop reward and recognition systems to encourage skilled followership.

Each year many books, articles and podcasts offer tips on how to become an effective leader. Since we need leaders to achieve great things, I welcome them all. However, I would hope thinkers also focus their efforts on strategies and advice regarding followership during the years ahead.

After all, somebody has to get the work done.

Andrew Laurie is an account manager at KMRD Partners Inc., a risk and human capital management consulting and insurance brokerage firm with offices throughout Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

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