Not Just a Follower

Not Just a Follower


Today, I share outrage and a quick refresher.

The outrage:  Here’s what happens: the Detroit Tigers lose, and we blame the authorities.  I’m guilty of this.  I didn’t see why the Tigers manager Jim Leyland put Schlereth in for Scherzer.  But hey, take your pick: from an owner, president, GM, manager, coaches, there’s just no shortage of  blame options.  I’m not outraged by the Tigers loss (they gave Detroiters a heckuva season). I’m outraged at my – and just about everyone else’s – instinct to blame authority figures.

Here’s the other side to the same phenomenon.  Eight weeks into teaching at Berkeley, I am overwhelmed (and yes outraged) at the degree to which students expect the teacher to do all the work.  Yes, I get paid. And yes I am a leadership “expert.”  And yes I have more time than my students to think about the course. But two things drive me nuts:

1.  Thirteen to seventeen years in schools have trained all of my students to be passive.  My 25 students are running at low energy levels, like all those little green circular LED lights on all those appliances in your house.  If I push their buttons, they turn on. But they are overwhelmingly reactive.  I was so proud when two students took turns rising from their chairs – without my permission but also without my resistance – to grab dry erase marker and facilitate a conversation among their peers about what they thought success was.

2.  Leadership experts and books reinforce this passivity with the language of “the” leader, which turns everyone else into just another follower. Although many – if not most – write about “empowering others” or “enabling others,” even these imply and reinforce that people don’t have power to begin with.

So, here’s the refresher I promised: YOU….ARE….A….LEADER.  As such:  do as Kouzes and Posner suggest: You don’t need permission or position to:

  • inspire a shared vision
  • encourage the hearts of others
  • enable them by supporting them to take on “bigger” challenges and to learn
  • challenge yourself by trying new things and constantly learning
  • and model the way by focusing on your values, talking them, and reflecting them in action.

Today YOU will be told – by YOURSELF as well as others – that you are just another follower.  Choose instead to

LEAD with your best self,


  • Dan;
    I certainly understand and have embraced your message that we all are leaders. I do have a question – What do we do if our “leaders” do not want to be led by us? I am encountering a great deal of resistance while trying to “lead” my colleagues. This resistance sparks a defense reaction in me, and this defensiveness is not being received well, at all. It is not in my nature to retreat (which I have considered), but I cannot see “the forest for the trees” in this situation. Any suggestions?

    Bob Kubiak

    • Bob,
      There are so many possible explanations and prescriptions, so it’s hard to know where to begin. But in the simplest way, I would try to listen out – i.e., draw out – two things: (1) What do your colleagues WANT. Hopefully, there is something in their picture of success that you can work with. This may require you inspiring them to something more. (2) Where is the pain your colleagues feel? What is wrong with the current reality – from their perspective. If you can help generate some shared understanding around these two things – what’s our idea/vision of success, and what is wrong now – hopefully some steps emerge for you all to move forward. So, which are you/they missing? A shared picture of success, an agreed up on destination? And/or a shared understanding of what’s not not working?
      Hope this helps.

  • This concept of Leaderless Movements leads me to suggest that the subject of next weeks RFL should be something like “Occupy Sproul Plaza”…..

  • Thanks for the interesting post, Dan. I have been trying to help colleagues begin to see themselves as people or leaders who don’t need to ask permission for everything. The inevitable response I get is “Well, my place in the hierarchy doesn’t allow me to do that.” It makes me sad to think that we feel that knowing our place is so vital in the workplace. It wouldn’t be so bad if the place were more pleasant and allow for growth. I can’t say how I began to act without asking permission (or joking that it’s better to ask for forgiveness). Having done so, I can no longer think of people in authority as faceless entities. This helps me understand that sometimes our choices don’t give us what we hoped they would. How can we possibly expect every person, every leader, to make only sound decisions that meet all of my or others’ expectations? I wonder if being a leader is similar to maturing. Sometimes we just stop because we think we’ve arrived.

    This is good food for thought. Thank you.

    • And thank you, Marjory. Stephen Covey’s FIRST practice of “highly effective people,” is “be proactive.” You have found that key. Isn’t it much better living as a subject than as a direct object 🙂
      Now the trick: continue sparking that in others! Keep leading with your best self.

  • I can’t resist saying that the passivity of those students is most likely the result of ten years of schooling in which passing a standardized test has become the only measure of learning. If that’s all that education meant to me, I’d be passive too!

    • Merilee,
      There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that our reward system in schools is, as you suggest, way off the mark. To what degree do we reward initiative, cooperation, creativity? Yet these are the fundamental economic drivers. What do we reward? Generally spitting back knowledge that’s held in short-term memory. Hello!
      So, yes, yes, yes.

  • There has always been pressure on corporate leaders to perform well. Some have stretched and improved their competencies by learning more about themselves. Most have chosen to adopt best practices of those whom they respect to improve their own leadership style.

    So, the question many ask today is: which is the better method to develop leadership skills—improve your innate signature talents or copy what others have developed and used successfully?

    Today’s, Gen Y/Millennials have been coached all their life by their helicopter Baby Boomer parents and now expect this same personal coaching guidance by their college professors and their managers in industry after college.

    Since their parents and high school teachers, most likely, haven’t helped these students discover their innate signature leadership talents, it is up to professors like yourself, Dan, to awaken this self-awareness in your classes.

    Getting to know and understand what it takes to be successful in life and work is what the college experience is all about for many of us….and….a wonderful environment to test our inborn leadership capability.

    • John,
      True. It is “what the college experience is all about,” but unfortunately we are dealing with human beings who now have deeply ingrained habits of mind!

  • Dan…perhaps for far too long “leadership” or “school” has been straight line rather than circular. Circular work can be “messy”…but it is far more inviting. The “room” is bigger, the conversation more engaging. We ALL become invested and we ALL benefit. T.S. Eliot said, “There is only the dance.” Maybe, as educators we need to encourage that kind of “play” and give our students the “permission” to participate by our invitation, our example.

  • We all have the power to follow our hearts. Some, like Martin Luther King, have the courage to actually do so, rather than take the “easier” but painful route of ignoring and discounting our own power.

    When I quoted some soaring phrases from the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address recently to a group of people from other countries, it came home to me very powerfully that:]
    1) some of their countrymen are giving their lives for the concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
    2) our country was founded by a group of PRINCIPLED and well-educated white men. Those principles survive and are enriched now by men and women, and people of all colors.

    They complained about George III and then they pledged their life, wealth, and sacred honor to fix the problem. They didn’t stop at complaining. They took responsibility for what they could do, even though it cost them… and look at what we’ve gained / reaped from their courage!

    What if everyone who complains came up with solutions, and worked to implement them.? Make a Difference Day is coming!

    The last I heard, moaning, groaning, whining, and complaining are not generally-accepted activities of leaders.

    I encourage everyone to read _Soul of a Citizen_ if you want to gain some courage to move beyond complaining and blaming.

    Love, Norma

  • Dan,

    I really like your article. I especially appreciate your noting that we don’t GIVE people power; they already have it. Remember Paolo Freire who says that the educator is indeed different from the students, but if the teacher’s dream is a liberating one, the teacher’s authority invites students into honest dialogue and a new level of participation in which students are subjects in the classroom, rather than passive objects. Freire knows it is a difficult balancing act, but the investment on both sides yields more confident, critical-thinkers.

    Kathy Castillo

  • The description of your students reminds me of the Occupy Wall Street people; passive and looking for handouts from the “leadership”. It’s interesting that the one decision that will take them to new and better places never enters their minds. And that decision is to stop feeling sorry for oneself, get to work and start serving others.

  • I don’t care one way or another about the outcome of a sporting event. In my past, as a competitive athlete, my opinion was different. Today, my focus is on improving my world around me. Note: I did not state ‘the’ world. Why? Because it feels more fruitful to be of a more local focus. The blame game? I look at your wife, her friend the POTUS, and many others who ARE to blame…..for the condition our country is in. Is it not an interesting phenom… get to see the results, in your classroom, of the nanny state dumbing down of the masses. Let the resurgence of indoctrination begin……again…..

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