Sean Johnson

Leaders, Followers, and Admirers

People often lament that there aren’t enough leaders in the world. But I wonder if the problem is really that there aren’t enough followers.

Lots of people want to be leaders. A lot fewer people want to be followers. Being a follower isn’t sexy. No one will invite you to speak at a conference or write a book about how to be a good follower.

But followers help drive most organizations. A leader can’t be a leader unless they have followers.

Most people aren’t leaders or followers – they’re admirers.

Admirers sit on the sidelines. They do what they’re told, and they punch out at 5. They don’t think about how to make things better, just about how to avoid screwing up. They worry more about politics and who’s getting ahead, and don’t spend much time doing the hard work of making their company better.

Followers get their hands dirty – they co-create the future with the leader. They work with the leader to develop the strategy, to execute it, to see it made manifest in the world. And while they might not share in the public glory, they have the satisfaction that only comes from working hard and seeing it pay off.

If you choose to be a follower and not simply an admirer, you probably won’t make more money, won’t have a better title, might not have more responsibility – at least not at first. But what you will have is the opportunity to develop discipline, focus, problem solving.

If you choose, you can have more than a job – you can have an apprenticeship. You can embrace your role in creating your organization’s future, and use it as a training ground to create bold ideas and make them happen. And by making your boss look good, you earn their trust.

Someday in the future, when you’re a leader yourself, you’ll remember the days you spent following, and will be grateful you weren’t simply an admirer. And you’ll be extremely thankful for the followers that now work and stretch and achieve for you.

If you want to be a leader, learn to be a follower first. Admirers who become leaders are the folks people hate working for – the folks who steal ideas, hate giving credit, play games to get ahead. They might have the title and trappings of a leader, but they’re simply an admirer with a better suit.

Followers who become leaders are the people you love to work for – they’re creative, share responsibility, give their team opportunities to grow and learn, and love to see their people succeed.

Great followers make amazing leaders. Admirers just make more expensive admirers.

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