We live in the age obsessed with leadership. Everyone (clearly it’s in an overgeneralisation, but you get my point) wants to be a leader, known as a leader or being referred to as a leader. You can be a leader of or leading anything: a team, a family, a nation, rankings, charts. The idea of leadership has galvanised an entire field of research, training and coaching industry, books and journals. And yet no-one (at least among the people I know) seems to want to be, what appears to be, the opposite: be a follower or called a follower. My Masters degree in Global Health at Oxford proudly claimed (when I enrolled over 10 years ago) that they were training leaders in global health. No-one questioned what that meant, but I presume it implied you could set your gaze on more senior roles. It would not read right, would it, if it said “We are training followers in global health”?

I am guessing no-one gets inspired by the idea of doing an MSc in Followership or an executive education in following. I can imagine a member of the so-called ‘senior leadership team’ going into the office the weekend after attending a workshop (probably not at Harvard) titled ‘Follower: Being the Best You Can Be for Your Leaders’ and getting looks from the colleagues. There is almost a stigma around the word. So we have these two contrasting ideas: leaders and followers. What is it about being a follower that puts us off (even researchers are not that thrilled)? We spend a lot of money on things that help us to get closer to whatever we imagine leadership to be, and shun away from followership. When we speak of wanting to become a leader, we are also implying that we do not want to remain in the current category. It is as though by defining ourselves as leaders we break the chains of our current self-definitions.

I am not sure why people who chose to talk about followership, actually chose the word followership and followers (I presume the plural reads better than the singular, otherwise it does not look too good on a leader with one follower). Did they see the word as the diagonally opposite of leadership or is that because people exhibited a follower like traits and so they adopted the word? I presume it’s the former, otherwise doing research on the followership traits may be too many or worse yet, may happen to overlap with leadership traits. From a conversation between researchers: “So, if Jonathan is not a leader he must be… what’s the word? Ah, yes, a follower.” It’s probably safe to assume that there is no debate on whether followers are made or born.

Part of the challenge is that the two constructs are placed as the opposites: if I am not a leader, then I am probably a follower. As a professor in a course on leadership suggested: if you are a leader then show me your followers. In one sense he was right to challenge the participants who probably overindulged themselves in thinking they were leaders, but equally he could be challenged on what constituted followers. Is a follower a person actively choosing to follow or happens to be in a team with someone else in charge because of their formal role? It also assumes that a person can shift from one state to another: today I am a follower, but do not despair, after an MBA and a promotion I can call myself a leader.

Maybe the whole idea of leadership and followership is an oversimplification of more nuanced aspects of what makes us who we are and what we can be. Something (or rather someone) more than just a binary invention of leader or follower.

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