Leaders, Followers – and Terrorists

Who – or, better, what – is a leader? And who – or, better, what – is a follower? Is it reasonable to refer to the two Kouachi brothers, who apparently were responsible for the massacre yesterday in Paris, as leaders? If a terrorist commits an act so heinous it changes our behavior – changes the behaviors of large numbers of people, including people in positions of authority – does that make him, or her, a leader?

It goes against our grain to think of terrorists as leaders – so completely has the leadership industry cajoled us into thinking of leaders as most of the time good, as opposed to some of the time bad. However, there are many different definitions of leadership, some of which encompass the behaviors of terrorists who commit acts so outrageous, offensive, and threatening to the general welfare, that they create change.

Here, for example, are three definitions that qualify:

  • Leadership as the initiation of structure.
  • Leadership as the capacity to induce compliance.
  • Leadership as a power relationship between leader and led.*

I raise the question of whether or not a terrorist can by any measure be considered a leader not merely as an intellectual exercise, but to broaden our conception of how leadership is conceived.

I would argue that in the old days – up to the 21st century – a leader was someone who as such was at least somewhat recognizable. I would similarly argue that times have changed, that in this shrinking, hyper-connected world a leader can be any anonymous someone who in the proverbial blink of an eye changes how millions think and what millions do. Similarly, men and women that we conceive of as leaders – say the president of France, Francois Hollande – can be transformed by terrorists into followers. They can be reduced, as it were, to being reactive rather than proactive.

I ask you, then, who exactly set France’s immediate priorities? And who exactly is obliged to go along?


Bernard Bass, The Bass Handbook of Leadership (Free Press, 2008). p. 15 ff.

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