How Shall We Follow?


Imagine you are part of a system that faces hard choices and complex challenges.  For example, you’re in a family that is trying to decide about end-of-life issues, or you’re trying to decide whether to relocate your kids for a job opportunity. Or perhaps you’re in a company that’s trying to decide about layoffs.  Or imagine you are running a large company and trying to decide whether to overhaul it completely, sell it off, or enter into a risky merger.  If you were at the helm in such situations, I wonder: What attitudes or commitments among your “followers” would you most like them to have?

Here’s what I’d want:  Openness to new ideas, because sometimes institutions have to change to survive.  I would hope for candid feedback, because I would want to know how people think proposed changes would affect them. I would also hope for some patience and trust, because steering through difficult decisions requires a whole lot of balancing, thinking and rethinking. Lastly, I think I would love to have my “followers” get in my shoes or see through my eyes, to see what I hope is the entire picture.  Allow me a paragraph’s digression.

Next week’s Reading for Leading will launch a second blog for the year ahead.  This new blogsite will address the question, “Among the important traits of leaders, what do we most need in our next President?” A number of great leadership writers will contribute.  This will NOT be about partisan issues, and it will NOT be about particular candidates.  Instead, we will ask about what we need; What attitudes, traits or behaviors seem most important in our next leader at this unique time?  Why not begin with what we need; then see who fits the bill?

Before I began that, I want to ask you to reflect not on what we need, but what will our next President need from us, in order to lead well.  If the examples in the first paragraph above – of leaders facing tough decisions – beg for great followers, how much more could great followers help our next President?  I’d love for you to comment on this blog about whether you think I have offered the right attributes of great followers, the things our next president will need from us.  And you might also comment about how we can generate such attitudes as openness, candor, patience and trust, or a full appreciation of the big picture.  If I’ve named the follower attitudes for citizens to generate great leadership, I have to wonder whether we deserve a great leader!

All leadership is dynamic, two-way, interactive – even in a system as huge as our political system.  It is only if we follow well that we can expect our next President to

Lead with their best self.



    • This is very funny!
      But are you serious? There are times to follow. I follow my wife’s lead when she is better versed and/or has to live with a decision due to her position. I follow my kids sometimes, especially when it’s about their developing expertise and gaining experience. I follow people at work even when I think they’re wrong, when it is their area, they have to live with the decisions, they have to build consensus, etc.
      Anyone who reads RFL knows that I’m all about empowering teams and small-d democratic leadership.
      But I think we’ve got a problem in our world when so few of us want to follow at all.

  • Dan – here’s a letter to the editor I prepared that addresses some of my concerns for both citizens and policy-makers. Also, I would add that perhaps your attention to candidness on the part of both is extremely important to me. I’m not very happy with all the biographies and journals now coming from former presidents and policy “leaders” that tell us things they thought but didn’t want published until they were dead. That isn’t being very candid, is it?

    Letter to the Editor

    I’m not writing to endorse or not endorse John Edwards for President (it’s far too early for me to decide where I will put my X), but I do feel we citizens should be attentive to candidates who express some value in citizen engagement and actually propose ways to involve us in policymaking as he has with his plan for a Citizen Deliberative Congress. Most candidates will sound politically correct when asked how they feel about citizen participation, but it is new for someone to really have a plan for how to go about enabling involvement. It would be great if all candidates, no matter what their party, told us their plans for involving us in democracy’s work. Any of us who get a chance to be where our candidates are speaking should ask them to present their specific CIPs (citizen involvement plans).

    In my work with the National Issues Forums (see since 1981, I have determined that citizens would like their policymakers to listen to their ideas and to come together in sessions that are moderated, fair, democratic and civil. Too many meetings that are called public hearings are not what they claim to be. We citizens and our policymakers can do better. There are a number of great organizations that have experience with ways to organize meetings for conversations with our policymakers that are much more constructive and effective than the screaming and ranting we’ve witnessed in the past.

    We need good, healthy conversations about our challenges and ways to address these issues that build on existing examples of democratic governance at all levels of government. The public is not ignorant, but currently we have a disconnect because we and those we have selected to represent us have done a poor job developing mutual trust. Citizens and policymakers have not stepped up to their shared responsibilities. If all of us in the policymaking equation could learn to authentically listen to one another, I believe we could engender a respect and empathy for the responsibilities of both. The challenges before us are immense. We need all the good ideas we can tap, and I don’t think it matters if they are introduced by just plain folks or our elected policymakers. We cannot afford to ignore one another or waste time in “made for Hollywood” political charades.

    Be sure this is not a cumbyya hope. Democracy is messy, there will always be passion, we won’t achieve full consensus on anything. But we will all do better if we honestly listen to one another, weigh our options together on healthcare, education, immigration, our environment, our justice system, transportation, our economy, civil rights, taxation, and other issues where decisions must be made to maintain our democracy. If we are unable to talk openly, honestly, and civilly with one another, we will inherit another form of government. History has provided other options. Those I’ve studied don’t seem to allow much in the way of life, liberty, and pursuits of happiness.

    Margaret Holt
    Watkinsville, Georgia

  • Our next President will need less partisanship from us. During the last election cycle, at a fund raiser, a political operative for one of the US Senate candidates described the opposing party as “the enemy.” This was not said in jest, nor as a turn of phrase, it was said with fire in the eye and passion in his voice. I may disagree with many things about the other side of the political spectrum, but that does not make them my enemy. They are often my neighbors, friends and family, who disagree with me, but they are NOT my enemy. So if we want our leaders to lead with their best selves, perhaps we ourselves need to be less virulent in our dialog not only across the political aisle, but even amongst political friends so as to not to demonize our political opponents.

    We also need to educate ourselves on the issues. We need to make the effort necessary to see beyond the 30 second sound bites in order to see where the truly thoughtful leadership is to be found. We must not make political choices based on bumper stickers.

  • The focus on “follower” behaviors is very appropriate. I believe that we need another component, however, to extend the openness and candid feedback.

    A crucial behavior is required to make the transition from openness and it’s active engagement of the followers to create the substance of the new direction/vision.

    The best followers find the impetus through their intrinsic motivation. Active engagement among larger groups is most often found in a symbiotic relationship with good leadership – where the leader communicates with clarity of vision, a compelling sense of urgency, and a clear demonstration that the contributions of the followers are valued.

  • How about ‘support’? It seems to me everyone is always looking out for themselves (which is natural), but when it comes down to it, a decision must be made and when it is, then it needs to be implemented. For that to occur we all need to work together to make it happen – if we keep fighting with each other we’re going to continue to go backwards in our City, State, Country and World. We may not agree 100% with the decision, but it is the decision and if we don’t support it, the next decision or choice we might not even have a voice in – it may be decided for us. It is not following blindly, but supporting until the next opportunity for change can happen in a open supportive way.

    Partisanship needs to become much less involved in decisions. We need to be looking at what is right for the world, not what is right for our party, or the lobbyist lining my pocket, or my committee, or my cronies, but what is ethically correct for humankind.

  • I’d add that great followers hold their leaders accountable for integrity and a set of guiding principles. Good followers don’t compromise here. We may totally agree with a person’s votes on a majority of issues, but a lying, cheating, stealing, self-serving leader needs to be replaced. The “lesser of the evils” vote in this type of circumstance just rewards bad behavior on one side of the aisle or the other.

  • Whoa! on the comment about whether we DESERVE a great leader. People always deserve great leadership. Followers respond to great leadership because they feel honored and respected- two hallmarks of great leadership. Honor and respect come from listening and responding. Given the leadership we’ve been presented with, many people who ordinarily would be engaged, involved, and passionate have stepped away or become frustrated because they feel that any attempts to speak out/up are futile. When a leader ignores their constituency, and goes about doing business without being open and trusting them, disconnection results. Leaders must be great healers as well.

    • What if a leader fails momentarily? Are they just “trashed” by us followers? What methods do we have of boosting our leader and getting them back on track? I’m sure it’s not up to a leader to be perfect all the time. Remember that RFL on scapegoating?

    • Linda,
      I love your “whoa” here! I agree with the sentiment that we deserve great leaders – all groups do. And I love what you’ve written about honoring and respecting the followers, about being open and trusting in return. And no bad behavior on the part of the followers gives the leaders the right to quit on them.
      Your comments make me think of the theological notion of “grace.” God cares about us. We don’t earn or deserve it. It is God’s pardon the allusion amazing gift. And leaders should strive to lead the same way.
      Nevertheless, we are adults in groups, yet sometimes we truly act like competitive children as we quibble with each other and fail to see each other’s legitimate differences, viewpoints, and needs. As adults we deserve better followership. Are you okay with that?
      And as adults, if we don’t start to honestly and civilly grapple with hard truths, then we will have so-called leaders whom we will follow at our peril who tell us what we want to hear, e.g, we’ll cut your taxes, spend more on war, and balance the budget. Huh? I didn’t understand that under Reagan (and neither did the economy seem to follow the President’s promises, as our deficit totally ballooned) and I don’t understand it now. But followers don’t seem to want to spread the pain (of less military expansiveness, higher taxes, more savings, more hours of work, etc.). And if we’re not willing to do the hard work we will in a colloquial sense, “get what we deserve.”
      Still say “whoa?”

  • Thanks for the thought provoking question. I’ll try to respond to that later. However, I’m beginning to think it is at least as important to seek out and promote effective leadership at the local and regional levels. I’m a believer that a great deal can be done at the community and regional level that has a direct impact on the quality of life we all enjoy. For example, if one person can leverage a promise to every student in the Kalamazoo School System that they can receive free college tuition, why can’t other communities do the same? What would happen if other superintendents thought the same way that Superintendent Brown did? What can effective local and regional leadership do for crucial quality of life improvements like mass transportation, air and water quality, health care and the rest? Not every solution comes from Washington…

  • Dan,

    Some years ago, it was suggested to me that I needed to separate my home life from my work life. That keeping them separate would prevent home problems from spilling over into work and work problems from tainting home life. It didn’t require a brain trust to see immediately that this was bogus advice, because there is a common denominator – me, and as a single entity, I could not be divided or compartmentalized without doing real damage.

    I would like to suggest that we cannot really divide the relationship between the next president and that president’s constituency. Perhaps we need to consider that any leadership relationship is truly a living organism that can thrive and grow or can sicken an die. Both halves of every function must be in place and healthy for that relationship to survive in any meaningful way.

    In my mind, great leaders and great followers seek, not domination, but balance. From this point of view the concepts of openness, candor, patience, and trust are essential parts of any balanced relationship. When secretiveness, deceit, impatience and mistrust arise, it nearly always seems to be part of someone’s attempt to tip the balance in their favor.

    Viewed with balance as the measure, I believe your offerings have weighed in very well. The attributes you have presented offer windows into how to establish that balanced and fair relationship between leader and follower. Without a leader, followers may be powerful, but directionless and wasteful. Without followers, a leader is powerless and pointless. What always seems to be missing however is reliable and accurate communication between the various parts trying to establish that all important balance.

    That’s where efforts like your blogs, your newsletters, and your books are critical. Someone must help open the lines of communication and bypass the massaged surveys and polls, the hyperbole, the spin, and the glasses – be they rose colored or jaundiced.

    Mick McKellar
    Laurium, MI

  • While I agree with many of the comments prior to mine, those of Margaret Holt and Linda especially resonate with me. Our system was established to protect unalienable rights, among which I would include the right to great leadership. Yes, we deserve it no matter how much or how little we contribute.
    However, in order for a great leader to say “I’m leading with my best self.”, that leader needs not so much the super follower, but the informed active citizen participant. The two-way street is indeed congested. Not only are public meetings less dynamic than they should be, but participants often are also unecessarily marginalized by the lack of access to public information. Because great leadership listens, we need more informed participation. Citizens are becoming do-it-yourselfers to inspire leadership, as much as to be inspired by it.

  • “What does the next president need from us,” is a good question. If we look at the Granholm experience, what we need to give our top executives is a common sense, balanced legislature. No matter how talented an executive is, if the legislature and the supreme court play games, push ideology and rank commercial interests, find power more important than good government, then no executive can accomplish much.

    Mark John Hunter
    Alpena, Michigan

  • Hey Dan…

    Great column as always.

    My comments are along the line of “Harris” above; We leaders can help engender the follower behavior you’ve described so well by being sure we are approchable, ethical in our actions and hold ourselves and others accountable for doing what’s right.

    Keep it coming! This is great stuff!


  • I think it’s a great idea to sideblog our presidential expectations. It seems like a painful tradition to always expect our officials to come across with candidate endorsements. My vote is supposed to be valuable because it’s based on my own opinion. The mainstream (mass-marketed) media seems to have missed this: they’re completely unforgiving of any executive that doesn’t provide endorsements upon demand. The positions we elect fellow citizens to never were meant to entail directing the vote for the rest of us. The cascade effect, if it were that way, would be effective tyranny. Are there elements in the country who would prefer that? I digress.

    I think it’s a great experiment to draw opinions regarding the best sort of president and to compare this to not only who’s in the running but also who we elect. I hope the potential for personal or political backlash doesn’t stop anyone from being honest, because it could really turn out to be fun, and even liberating. And it will definitely turn out to be beneficial for anyone who gives it their attention. An experiment like that lends the rare, positive connotation to the term “liberal”. Just thinking about it, I almost start to feel like a liberal myself.

    I do think, though, that you’ve cut off a potential branch of the experiment by stating that “this will not be about particular candidates”; allowing those involved to state their endorsements would allow us to see if those endorsements change with our perceptions. Of course, if it’s really entirely about personal experience, then the admission has to be made that any endorsement, even by vote, must come to some extent prematurely: we never really know who we’ve voted for until they take office. And keeping the actual voting issue out of the discussion will keep it light and focused. Great idea, kudos.

    • Thanks for the enthusiasm. I’m asking the leadership scholars not to talk candidates. I can’t stop commentaries, but I sure hope it doesn’t become a place where the candidates’ teams immediately jump in and start creating the criteria that looks good for their guy or gal.

  • Dan, our next President will need the courage to say NO to the wants of the Fortune 500 million dollar company’s and YES to the needs of the people he/she SERVES. They will need to end the war, feed the poor, stop outsourcing jobs and make sure every American has health care…..Just to name few things to get started. But addressing all of these issues takes courage and that my friend has not been shown.

    NOTE: It’s believed by some, that no one is a follower…We are all leaders. Some of us have just gotten lost and refuse to ask for directions.

  • Your wife has led the State of Michigan into an economic abyss. She has relied upon your assistance and expertise over the last 7 years. BUYER BEWARE

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