In Defense of Followers

Back when I was in college (the first time), I had an acquaintance who had the habit of classifying people as either Leaders or Followers.   Implicit in the categorization was the idea that leaders were the courageous makers of fashion, while the followers were sheeplike consumers without the will to make their own decisions.

In retrospect it sounds like the result of some well-meaning but half-baked piece of youth rally philosophy meant to encourage the kids not to follow the wrong crowd, but at the time it came to annoy me.  For starters, it left no room for those who didn’t follow blindly but at the same time didn’t exactly attract a following of their own.  The admission of a category for nonconformists would have been a worthwhile addition.

Also, it’s clearly a mistake to lionize “leaders” simply because they’re leaders or dismiss followers simply because they’re followers.  It is possible, after all, to lead downward as well as upward.  Besides, what would happen if everyone tried to be a leader?  I’m reminded of another experience from college (the second time).  This was one of those group problem solving exercises, the one where your plane has crash-landed in a Minnesota snowstorm, and your group has fifteen minutes to figure out what to do about it.  The results were about what one might expect from about a dozen ambitious MBA candidates, all keenly aware that their grade included a component for “classroom participation”:  fifteen minutes of vigorous debate (or I should say “debates,” since they tended to happen concurrently) concluded by about a dozen different answers.   It seems, then, by definition, not everyone can be a leader, since leadership implies a) movement, and b) someone following.

So…if you can’t be a leader without followers, it follows (so to speak) that “followers” are very important people, in that their choices determine who will be leaders.  “Followers” therefore have a responsibility to think about whom they’re following and why, and choose leaders who are worth following–and support them.   Of course there are lots of people who don’t seem to give it much thought (is there any other way to explain the multiple-piercings crowd?), but that doesn’t mean the responsibility doesn’t exist. 

And if all else fails, if there aren’t any of the right leaders around, it may become necessary for a follower to step up and learn to lead (or at least accept becoming a nonconformist), so there is someone going in the right direction–a terrifying prospect for the natural follower, but necessary, all the same.

So, maybe there is a place in the universe for followers–the thoughtful, conscientious sort–even if, judging by the state of the world, they’re in the vast minority.

On a final, and somewhat disjointed note, I would just like to add for the record that not all youth rally philosophy is half-baked–after all, it’s not easy holding a youth audience long enough to make a complicated point.  I need to work on appreciating those who try.

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