Redirecting: From Leaders to Followers

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Having filled out many applications in the hope of getting into a renowned university or being selected for some youth conference, I have answered a-little-less-than-many essay questions about my leadership skills. As frequently as I have come across them, I have felt troubled. Once through the process of writing about the leader within me, the same question has greeted me in the interview rooms. One thing that I have gained from this experience, is not leadership skills, is that this type of questions comes in all shapes and sizes. From being phrased as ‘What characteristics make you a good leader?’ to being voiced as subtly as ‘Describe a situation in which you had exhibited leadership skills’, they will follow you throughout your application process. In short, a positive answer to ‘Are you a good leader?’ is the most sought-after element of the entire selection criteria these days.

Being a person who doesn’t enjoy being in the spotlight often, I have felt belittled while trying to self-diagnose my leadership gene in response to these questions. Selection and admission committees of institutions and organizations tend to overlook the essential link between leaders and followers, that leaders and followers are interdependent. Candidates who are able to prove the existence of their leadership qualities are readily accepted while those having skills that speak of good followership are sidelined.

Various institutions and organizations are actively involved in organizing and supporting activities that are aimed at creating good leaders, however, the importance of creating good followers to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of these newly created leaders is significantly undermined.

Barbara Kellerman, leadership lecturer at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, defies the prevalent global emphasis on the mantra ‘creating leaders, not followers’. She believes that the changing world dynamics has vested more power in followers than leaders. In his article ‘Leadership: What Followers Want From Their Leaders’, Richard Pfohl, leader of CBMC’s Hartford chapter, talks about the importance and ways of tapping into leader-follower relationship for successful leadership.

Hitler was a great leader; he had all the qualities needed to be one. The share of his followers in the crime of causing perennial destruction to humanity is more than that of Hitler himself. Their support gave national power to an exclusively inhumane ideology that otherwise would have remained unknown to the world, let alone be propagated and acted upon on a massive scale. They weren’t good followers; they couldn’t think beyond their personal gains to open their eyes to the brutality and ramifications of the ethnic cleansing their leader aspired to achieve.

The recent turn of public opinion against Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is not unknown to us. The presidential candidate’s racist approach to campaigning that draws on hatred towards ethnic minorities in the States has cost him a lot more than criticism. Among other entities, NBC and Macy’s were two big names to call off business ties with Trump. These developments came in the wake of public outrage that followed his derogatory remarks against Mexicans, Muslims and a few particular individuals. By expressing their aversion to his politically incorrect views, a considerable chunk of American population has demonstrated strong followership skills and has been successful in having national and international narratives voice their reservations against Trump. Followers who acknowledge their responsibility to challenge their leader whenever necessary and participate proactively in matters of mutual interest have a more meaningful contribution to the society than their leader.

As effectively can good followers get bad leaders down on their knees, can bad followers hamper the success of a good leader. At the battle of Uhud, Prophet Muhammad’s war strategic skills were let down by some of his followers when they decided to dismount from the hill they were stationed at to shoot arrows at the opponents, to collect the loot despite the Prophet’s strict orders. This violation of order caused Muslims who had almost emerged victorious to meet defeat and led to a huge loss of lives. Despite having a competent leader, lack of commitment of the followers to a greater cause can nullify the effect of good leadership to a considerable extent.

A highly cited quotation -Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders- during leadership trainings and sessions successfully creates more problems for countries like Pakistan where every other citizen has claimed self-righteousness and where intolerance for others’ beliefs and actions borders on violence. Efforts aimed at enabling every citizen to take initiative instead of being dependent on other players in the society are applaudable, however, they don’t ensure mobilization of the masses. The possibility of these individual initiatives not being mutually reinforcing and diverging to undesirable outcomes should also be taken into consideration.  This leadership approach also incites people who are better suited to the role of followers to assume leadership which may lead to further chaos. Ironically, this view has also inspired leaders of two most mandated political parties to pass the leadership gene down their future generations, fortifying their foothold in Pakistan’s political terrain.

For a long time, all profound talks about Pakistan’s deteriorating status quo have concluded at ‘we don’t have good leaders’. Ironically, discussions on our eligibility as good followers have been conveniently evaded. Our nation lacks awareness and critical thinking skills to be able to make leadership choices that transcend our ethnic loyalties and involve critical evaluation of potential candidates. We lack the courage to stand up to our leaders who go astray from meeting national interests in favor of personal fulfillment and to hold them accountable for their wrong-doings. We do not make good followers, we make blind followers. We are unable to demonstrate our collaborative power to have our leaders cater to our needs and concerns. Hence, we lack virtues that are vital to the essence of good followership. For we do not make good followers, we do not have good leaders among us. Aptly put, Aristotle once said, “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.”

To create good leaders, we first need to create good followers. Nurturing followership would naturally generate good leadership but placing value on leadership alone would produce little more than wasted time and resources. It’s about time that we address the need to redirect our focus to followers and acknowledge their critical role in shaping and reshaping systems and societies.


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