I’ve spent most of my career up to this point in strictly a followership role, without any formal position of leadership. In that time, I don’t think I ever found myself saying of my leaders, “You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it; your role is so easy compared to mine.”
Having more recently stepped into a leadership role, I can now verify the degree of challenge and burden which I expect many leaders face.
But does that mean that leadership is harder than followership?
Ira Chaleff, author and speaker, offers a few minutes of thoughts on a similar question:
Surely, for a leader the responsibilities may be more broad, the constituencies more varied, the implications of certain decisions more costly than those faced by many followers.
But on the other hand, I think there is a sense in which leadership is easier.
A friend shared with me a Bengali/Indian proverb which says, “You can easily find a thousand teachers, but it is difficult to find a true disciple.”
Although stemming from a culture and milieu far from my own upbringing in the modern West, this proverb hits on a reality that many of us can attest to. There is no lack of ‘leaders’ out there. There is a plethora of people who are eager to assert their ideas and to develop a following. Many will charge on ahead whether anyone comes behind them or not, hoping that charisma or success or circumstances will eventually attract people to their cause or pursuit.
It is rather more difficult to find someone–with the same degree of energy, intensity, commitment, self-assurance, and vision–who desires to be a follower, to come under and alongside of someone else in order to work together, learn, contribute, and influence.
True followership often requires submission, a setting aside of independence in order to become a fully integrated collaborator.
Actually, true leadership requires the very same thing–but there are plenty of people who claim the role of ‘leader’ without any such plans to relinquish any of their personal preferences in terms of motives or methods.
It is a challenging role indeed to be an excellent follower–to engage with the full weight of one’s convictions, talent, perspective, and ability–all while honoring, submitting, and releasing to someone else. To forgive the imperfections of one’s leader, to humbly help the greater group fulfill its aims, to participate even when decisions are disagreed with and the full extent of the considerations are obscured.
This is a difficult task indeed.
How much simpler is it to jump into the flow of much modern culture, to charge ahead–alone if necessary–asserting one’s own agenda and excellence. No wonder so many ‘leaders’ incline to this approach, and receive the acclaim of our Western mindset for doing so.
Which is easier? Both leadership and followership, taken to the point of excellence, present significant challenges–internally and externally.
But the sad reality today, as it was apparently in ancient India, is that far too many give up on following well, choosing instead to adopt a diluted title of ‘leadership’ and thus obscure the real leaders among us.
Our question perhaps should not be: which is easier? But rather which is easier to find? If we as a culture could shift to valuing followers, and also expecting more relationship from our leaders, I think we may indeed find more excellence and accomplishment, among both followers and leaders alike.
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