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Fixated on Leadership: Why Learning How to Follow is Crucial for Success

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Leadership ability, it would seem, is the essential ingredient of success. But is it?

Academies and institutes, high schools and colleges, MBA programs and charter schools all promote their ability to train 21st century leaders. High school seniors applying for college using the Common Application are instructed to include details about the “position/leadership” they hold as a part of their extracurricular activities. The celebration of leadership has become so routine that an educator at a California preschool was heard prompting a 5-year-old to “use her leadership voice.”

“The term has become so ubiquitous that it has lost its meaning,” said Ira Chaleff. He is a student of what his colleague, Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman, calls the “leadership industry,” as well as an author on the critical value of following. His most recent book, "Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong," explores why citizens, including young students, need to understand effective “followership,” which requires both supporting leaders’ good ideas and questioning or even resisting their bad ones. He says there are some unintended consequences of our cultural fixation on leadership and there are some ways schools and teachers can do help address them.

There are many costs associated with the drive to “create” leaders, according to Chaleff. Many of us mistakenly think of leaders as those special individuals who possess a certain set of traits -- confidence, charisma, vision -- that qualify them to be in charge. In fact, Chaleff says, most people shift roles depending on the work at hand: They’re followers in one sphere and leaders in others. “We have misidentified leader and follower as personality types when we should be talking about roles,” he said.

Kids who are brought up to believe that they should be leaders in everything -- captain of the tennis team, head of the debate team and student council president -- are being set up to fail. “You can’t be the leader of everything; kids should try lots of things, some as leaders, some as supportive team members,” he said.


Another pitfall associated with a singular focus on leadership traits, rather than roles, is the dark side of leadership. Gangs, malevolent regimes and criminal organizations have effective leaders, too, but that’s not what schools, presumably, want to build. “History is full of terrible examples of people with ‘leadership skills,’ ” Chaleff said. Romanticizing leadership ignores its ugly applications and blinds us to its misuses.

What schools at all levels should teach, Chaleff said, is the other side of the leadership coin: followership, not the passive stereotype of a follower, but the energetic, courageous way of performing the role.

What’s to be gained from instructing children in effective following?

First, they begin to understand that followers are what allow leaders to succeed; a leader without followers is powerless. They also learn that following isn’t a passive responsibility. Effective followers actively support the designated leader, provided she is reasonably competent and striving to carry out the group’s core purpose. At the same time, they must develop a voice to speak up and object if the leader goes astray. Shrewd leaders welcome objections, and wise followers have the guts and the tools to challenge unworkable or unwise orders. Obedience taught too well, Chaleff writes, extinguishes the imperative to hold ourselves accountable for actions we take.

To help destigmatize the concept of following, Chaleff said, leadership should be taught as a kind of partnership between those in charge and those going along. If the group is gathered to achieve some central purpose, and all are united in reaching that goal, then leaders and followers should willingly shift roles depending on the task at hand and their relative competencies. The group revolves around the mission, in other words, rather than any one leader.

Formalizing Following Skills

Chaleff laments the lack of formal instruction on effective following. “We don’t talk enough about followership in leadership education, at K-12 or even the college level. We used to not talk about it at all. Fortunately, that is beginning to change,” Chaleff said.

He also believes that schools and parents, who most of the time require children to obey their rules, should work with kids to also teach them how and when to disobey, when obeying would be dangerous or immoral. Experienced teachers should encourage their students to go along when it’s appropriate, but to challenge directives when necessary.

“Teachers are the authority in the classroom,” Chaleff said, “Yet, if they’re doing their job, they need to train young minds to question authority, not to always obey,” he added, acknowledging the expertise and delicacy required to do this right.

Leading and Following in School

Some schools and teachers do address leadership with such nuance. At the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, for example, students are taught that leadership means taking ownership of your life, making a difference in the world, and bringing others along with you. Doing something powerful with an idea requires assistance from others, and students learn how to collaborate and cooperate -- or follow, in other words -- to realize their vision.

“Leadership is very fluid,” said Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the school. “Sometimes you’re in charge, and sometimes you’re in a support role,” he said. Learning these skills is especially critical for the disenfranchised, he added, because this population is less apt to consider leadership a birthright.

Matt Kay, who teaches high school English there, emphasizes active listening and cooperation among the students. Much of the class work is done in groups, because collaborating in small teams -- or pods, as he calls them -- teaches kids how to work together and requires them to genuinely hear others’ opinions. This focus on cooperation and listening as forms of leadership up-ends the conventional notion of the leader as authoritative talker. Though he doesn’t explicitly address the idea of “followership,” Kay redefines the skills more associated with following -- paying attention and cooperating -- as central to good leadership.

Christine Clemens, an eighth-grade history teacher at Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey, has tried to teach the principles of leadership for the entirety of her lengthy career. She learned from her own study of history that the Renaissance, Reformation and subsequent revolutions told the story of enlightened followers no longer tolerating absolute rule, and came to believe that the followers were more important than the leaders.

In class, she teaches her students that authentic leadership is a way of looking at life: What is your plan? How will you communicate it? How will you make decisions? Handle crises? Leaders are impotent without followers, she instructs, who together should form a symbiotic relationship around the mission.

“It’s critical for them to recognize that they won’t be successful without followers,” she said. And to model the kind of leader she wants to encourage among her students, Clemens asks open-ended questions and invites them to challenge her views. “Authority is tough,” she said. “It’s very important to keep order and have rules, but if it becomes corrosive or fearful, the kids won’t trust me, and then they won’t participate." Clemens welcomes student input and strives to create what she calls a community of learners.

Like Chaleff, Clemens believes that followers are unfairly stigmatized. “We tell girls we want them to be leaders, but we don’t elevate the status of followers enough,” she said. Lilli D., who attended a private high school that focused on building leaders, agrees. “Everyone can’t be a leader, in terms of simple logic, and the numbers of it,” she said. When students aren’t taught how to be “active followers,” as she describes herself, friction sometimes erupts between the few selected for leadership positions and the many who aren’t. “If no one knows how to follow, it just doesn’t work,” she said. In her experience, leadership education is big on the advantages of taking charge while overlooking its downside, like being responsible for the grunt work.

“I prefer to support and be helpful to the leader than do all the nitty-gritty,” she added.

Chaleff hasn’t given up hope about “follower” becoming an aspirational term. Social media, with its emphasis on following and followers, uncovers the hidden power of following. To make a difference in the world, one needs followers to amplify her message. And in the spirit of reciprocity, following someone else elevates your own ideas.


“Hey, I’ve got 1,000 followers, and I follow 1,000,” Chaleff said. “That’s how the new world works.”

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