In the leadership literature – and in the English language more generally – there is a visceral loathing of the word “follower.” It is associated with being weak not strong, with being passive rather than active, and with being a loser as opposed to a winner.
Nevertheless, in English, “follower” is the obvious antonym of “leader.” Though most of the experts continue to shy from the word – preferring to use synonyms such as constituent, stakeholder, or subordinate – I continue to believe that “follower” is a useful, even necessary, designation.
To be sure, as I use the word, to label someone a follower is not to imply that they follow at every turn. To the contrary: just as leaders don’t always lead, so followers don’t always follow. They sometimes they go their own way, chart their own course. This then is my definition:
Followers are people without any obvious sources of power, authority, or influence. They therefore usually – though not always – fall into line. They therefore usually – though not always – go along with the prevailing norm.
According to this definition, when he blew the lid off the National Security Administration’s surveillance programs in 2013, Edward Snowden was a follower. Until that moment he was without any power, authority, or influence whatsoever. That he has been able to exert such a great impact on America’s political system – whatever the future of the various provisions of the Patriot Act, for the moment some have expired – is further evidence that leaders are anything other than all-important. Followers matter – and so do the contexts within which both leaders and followers necessarily are embedded. Whatever you think of the change that Snowden created, it is testimony not only to follower power, but to the 21st century technology that in this case enabled it.