The Importance of Being a Follower

My strong interest in followership – as opposed to only in leadership – began about ten years ago. I was writing my book Bad Leadership, when it became evident that there were no bad leaders without bad followers. The former simply did not, could not, function without the support of the latter. Since then, I have nearly never talked about leadership without, simultaneously, referencing followership.

Only in the last few years though did something else become apparent: leaders are getting weaker and followers stronger. Not a day goes by without evidence that testifies to events driven as much from the bottom up as from the top down. It’s not that leaders have become unimportant or irrelevant. But in the 21st century most followers make it hard for most leaders to get so much done. And in the 21st century followers feel empowered and emboldened to a degree that historically is unprecedented. While this phenomenon appears at first glance to be primarily political, it is not. It is evidenced in every sector; and it is evidenced worldwide, in the United States certainly, but equally in places like China, and Brazil, and Bangladesh, in effect, everywhere.

This change in the way the world works is so blatantly obvious, at least to me, it’s a mystery, at least to me, that anyone anywhere can any longer teach leadership without teaching followership. But, there it is. For whatever constellation of reasons the study of leadership remains a bull market, while the study of followership still languishes. Maybe some day this will change. Maybe some day people will realize that the way the world works in the present, as opposed to the way the world worked in the past, mandates we pay attention to those in the middle and at the bottom, as well as to those at the top.

Meantime here is evidence – none more than a week old – of the importance of being a follower.          

  • The press was focused on the nine members of the Supreme Court and what they would have to say about gay marriage. But the real story of course – the real story behind this week’s victory for equal rights – was not about the nine but about the many thousands of ordinary Americans who fought the good fight. And it was about the many millions of ordinary Americans who came in the last decade to believe that there was no reason that everyone should be entitled to the benefits of marriage – save those who were gay. As George Chauncey pointed out in the New York Times (“The Long Road to Marriage Equality”) the marriage movement emerged out of the maelstrom that was the AIDS epidemic (in the 1980s). But it was about more, much more, than legal benefits. Gays and others fought for the right for gays to marry because denial of marriage rights has always been a “powerful symbol of people’s exclusion from full citizenship.”  The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) finally became intolerable, legally, morally, because so many Americans came to believe, along with Justice Anthony Kennedy, that “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.” I might add that the woman who sued to have DOMA overturned, the woman who led the charge, Edith Windsor, is a woman now over 80 years old, who no one had previously heard of, a woman who until now was without any apparent power, authority, or influence.
  • Until a few weeks ago Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seemed untouchable, impervious to political problems. In fact, both domestically and internationally Erdogan was one of the few political leaders who was riding high, credited with transforming Turkey into a regional power, and into a model that other countries would do well to emulate. Where else had the mix of Islam and democracy seemed to work so well? But then, seemingly out of the blue, began widespread public protests that convulsed the country. Out of the blue, in other words, there came followers who previously had stayed silent, as in recent years Erdogan became increasingly autocratic, determined to have things his way and to brook no dissent. Like most such protests it began small, a dispute over a park, and then it spread, finally requiring or seeming to hordes of riot police to restore order. As it stands now, Erdogan is back in control – but the price has been high. Some 7,000 protesters and more than a dozen journalists were injured. Five people died, and several remain in critical condition. A witch hunt has begun for so-called provocateurs. Hundreds of demonstrators have been detained, and even jailed for such “crimes” as tending to the wounded. And there have been international consequences as well. Germany, for example, Turkey’s largest trading partner, is now trying to block new talks about its entering the European Union. One could argue that the protests are signs that Turkey is maturing as a democracy. But one could as easily argue that whatever the signs, so long as Erdogan remains in power, so long will democracy be suppressed. As we have seen in Putin’s Russia, fledgling democracy movements are fragile. Even the bravest, most determined followers are vulnerable to leaders who would as soon destroy them.
  •  Brazil is a different story. And Brazil is the same story. Brazil is the same in that an apparently small and simple protest, in this case over an increase in bus fares, led out of the blue to complete chaos, to an ostensibly thriving, developing country in the grip of a level of unrest that only a week earlier was all but inconceivable. Hundreds of protesters became thousands, and then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. Finally a million ordinary Brazilians vented their various frustrations, furious at their leaders for a range of offenses, most of them centering on income inequities, corruption, and spending that was perceived to be excessive on everything (including next year’s World Cup) but basic services. The point is that “all of a sudden, a country that was once viewed as a stellar example of a rising, democratic power found itself upended by an amorphous, leaderless popular uprising with one unifying theme: an angry, and sometimes violent rejection of politics as usual” (New York Times, June 21.)  What was different about Brazil – different from Turkey – is that Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff quickly did what she could to mollify the masses. To be sure, in week one the authorities tried cracking down. But when that didn’t work, the government changed course. Instead of in any obvious way punishing their followers, Brazil’s leaders tried rewarding them. Rouseff promised improvements in transportation and health services, she insisted that she would spend all of Brazil’s expected revenue from massive new finds of offshore oil on education, and finally she promised to reconfigure the country’s entire political system by convening a constituent assembly that could overhaul both the Congress and campaign-finance methods. How this will all come out in the end is impossible now to say. In any case the difference between what happened in Turkey and what happened in Brazil is palpable, save in one all-important way. Both countries were upturned not by leaders, but by followers.
  • After a building collapse in Bangladesh in April killed well over a thousand garment workers, it became rapidly clear that something big would have to be change. In particular, the authorities in Bangladesh were increasingly concerned over the backlash both at home and abroad. At home there were the predictable but nevertheless impassioned protests, masses of ordinary people incensed by the manifest failure of government to regulate factories, workplaces of countless workers. And abroad there was growing disquiet, fear that, for example, Americans would finally be put off by garments that while dirt cheap, were being made by men, women, and children far from home, exploited for their dirt cheap labor. In fact, not only were leaders in Bangladesh worried, so were leaders in the U. S., corporate leaders concerned their goods would no longer sell so well, and, in a worst case scenario, actively be boycotted by consumers who would rather pay a dollar more for a tee shirt than tote a guilty conscience. Therefore, again as a result of pressure from below, it was revealed this week that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Gap, Inc, and other large U.S. retailers were nearing an agreement to establish a $50 million, five-year fund to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh garment factories. (The agreement was contingent on the government in Bangladesh meeting criteria for accountability.) This on the heels of other retailers – in particular dozens of large European companies – who had earlier already adopted a legally binding pact to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. Activists have tried for years to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh, which has grown to one of the world’s largest apparel producers, precisely because of its low costs. But it took another catastrophe – the one in April was by no means the first – to heighten public awareness, especially outside Bangladesh, to the point where followers were seen by leaders as a likely threat.          
  • About Wendy Davis you could say that before this week she was already a leader. She was, after all, a Texas state senator. However as such she had precious little of what leaders value – precious little power, authority, or influence. A couple of days ago that changed – likely forever. It was her own doing, her own willingness to speak to power, to stand up to power in the State Capitol in Austin by daring in dramatic fashion to filibuster. Ultimately, though her filibustering was under grueling, one might even say draconian conditions, it lasted more than eleven hours. And it transformed her into a political phenomenon, first on line then in real time she became an overnight star who likely will shine for some time to come. I don’t want to get trapped by word play on this one – a week ago was Senator Davis a leader or a follower? My point is that a week ago scarcely anyone had heard of her outside the state of Texas. My point is that for various cultural and technological reasons she was able to capitalize on what she accomplished in a way that would have been impossible even a decade ago, rocketing from obscurity to fame in the proverbial heartbeat.
  • Is there anything left to say at this time that hasn’t already been said about Edward Snowden? Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old so-called hacker who turned America’s political establishment, especially its security establishment, on its head by leaking? Not really, except to point out that his particular trajectory is a sign of the times. It is a sign of how now a single individual can engage in role reversal – can oblige those we call leaders into following his lead.       

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