What is leadership? I talked a bit about that in an earlier post from an academic standpoint. Simply put – it’s one person leading others. Which is true. But that is a bit simple. But what does it really mean? Why do people follow? As a starting point maybe that is the way to approach this topic, from the perspective of the follower. People follow leaders for many reasons. For most people, from what I can tell, they follow a leader because an organization, like work or the military, has designated someone a leader. And most of the time, people will follow without really questioning why they are following. It might be because that is just the way “it works”. Or if they don’t follow their boss or commanding officer, they will get fired or put in the stockade which can be a quite the motivator for following someone. But I’ve noticed that when people are just following someone because of how an organization is set up, some people don’t put their heart into what they are doing. They know they will get paid whether they do what is required of them or go beyond what is expected. When working for the same “boss”, other people will dive in, put all their energy into the work, and of course benefit from it. Maybe those people want to be valued by the organization or they have personal goals that drive them, but that gets into ambition which is a different topic all together.
On an individual bases, a person will look to a leader for a decisive decision that the person doesn’t need nor want to be responsible for, or the person doesn’t feel they have the right to make. I’ve notice those scenarios while working as a manager or technical leader. Also, studies have shown that people will follow orders that they may not agree with or just know are wrong like the Milgram experiment. Is this because they know that they will not be responsible? In Milgram’s experiment, he noticed that regular people will follow commands that fall below the normally accepted idea of morality and ethics. These people maybe uncomfortable with what they are doing, but they will still inflict harm or take part in destructive situations if ordered to do so. While I’ve never ordered someone to electrocute someone (thought about it), I’ve watched people just accept without visibly questioning my “order” and follow through with it.
In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deanna Troi completes her training to allow her to command a starship and most notably to take part in the commanding officer rotation for the Enterprise. She spent most of the episode trying to figure out how to outsmart one of the tests, but ultimately learns to making the hard decision to send a member of the crew (and possible a friend) to their death to save the ship and crew. She passed this test. And this illustrates one of the other qualities we, the followers, look for in a leader. Does the leader have the inner strength to make hard decisions? If yes, we tend to follow.
Other times, people might see a leader having more experience or wisdom. They will look up to a leader for guidance like MLK, Churchill, Gandhi, Bernie and Michelle Obama. When a leader has vision, I’ve noticed that people will want to follow to be a part of the vision being expounded upon. Sometimes the vision is for social change, a cultural idea, or new products, for example Steve Jobs and Apple. Many people as consumers and Apple employees swear by the cult of Apple. While some people may complain about the leader’s methods, there is still a high level of admiration towards a visionary leader. People want to be part of things that are bigger than themselves and will join movements that have a vision they can believe in like numerous parts of the environmental movement, social justice, or growing food in a community garden. And granted times of conflict can also motivated people to join a cause like Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII. That event, motivated an entire nation to back the war effort. But that is more about a reaction then a vision.
Followers will flock to a leader because belief in a vision, but also people feel they are being listened too. Which may explain why a white affluent elder statesman rose to national attention to be the leader of the progressive movement, or maybe his skin tone and gender were just more pliable for certain demographic groups. There is much speculation and opinion on the internet already about this topic for you to google if interested. I think this plays into why some people are called “natural” leaders. In my opinion, these are people who listen. They also listen to more than one group of people and manage to weave what they learn into a vision. While listening is important and oftentimes more important than speaking. Being a good orator is definitely a useful skill for a leader to have. Why have a vision if you can’t get the word out? Naturally people will group around a person who speaks up. They will stop and listen if the speaker is engaging. Some followers engage with speakers who are eloquent, thoughtful, and funny. Other leaders rise because they have the loudest voice and exhibit the most confidence. Neither means they will be good leaders, since there is more to being a leader then running one’s mouth.
I think followers follow because they get emotional satisfaction from it. They feel like they belong to a community or tribe. In the corporate world especially the tech industry, there is an emphasis on being part of a team – of adding value to a larger entity. Good leaders make people feel valued. While leadership is about being a guide to bring together people for a purpose, depending on how that guide operates, the best in people can be brought out, too. Whether it’s being part of a larger endeavor and feeling like one’s efforts make a difference or being able to let go of responsibility, people will always look for leaders.