Leading to Follow

There’s no shortage of attempted definitions of leadership; you can find a few of my own musings across various posts on this blog.

But perhaps a more valuable exercise is to think about the purpose of leadership. Why do people lead? What does it achieve?

For some, their aim in following is merely so that they can eventually lead; this is the idea of climbing the ladder, doing one’s time, earning one’s seniority. But what if it turns out that the aim of leading goes right back to following?


I came across the quote below some time ago, but have just come back around to it. It’s from a book entitled Forged on the Field, which consists of dozens of letters written from real leaders, passing along their wisdom to the next generation.

One contributor writes, “we are not leading anyone anywhere….except leading them…to follow” (p.191).

When we are excited to proclaim that leaders take others into new frontiers, fulfill grand visions, generate attainment of material rewards and ethereal glory, this perspective offers something rather different.

Perhaps leaders are not taking people to a destination, but rather on a journey of engagement.

Maybe that’s not a new or refreshing insight, but wait. What is the substance of that journey?

Rather than going somewhere, leadership is about taking people to experience something. And the something that they can uniquely experience under leadership is followership.

Leading others so that they can follow.

Before this sounds too egotistical, like creating a tribe of fanatics or establishing one’s personality cult, the followership journey goes way beyond coming under and alongside a particular leader.

Instead, there is a leading to bring people to participate in something bigger, to be meaningfully engaged in an organization, contributing to a group endeavor.

This is bringing people into a forum within which they can both express and enhance the best that they are, the best that they have. An invitation into community, ushering and advocacy that helps to open doors and generate communication and collaboration.

Think about this: why are elevators some of the most awkward collections of humanity?

Most people experience little more than uncomfortable stares at the walls, ceiling, or the panel marking current floor status…which offers the relief that one is indeed headed in the right direction and will eventually be able to step out of this container and be freed of this awkwardness. Thankfully, smartphones (if they maintain signal) give us something to fix our attention on and alleviate a little of our discomfort. (What did we do before then?!?)

Ultimately, elevator rides are a group of people, defined only by the walls of a metal box in which they temporarily reside while heading merely in the same most basic direction (up or down). There’s no identity, no shared purpose that requires any sort of contribution (i.e. no work), no structure. And thus, usually no communication.

I wonder what it was like in the days when elevator operators (lift attendants) were commonplace. Although many of the above realities were still true, at least there was a human presence that provided some sense of engagement, some sense of service; in many ways, some sense of leadership.

Certainly, if an elevator gets stuck, there’s a whole new experience of that metal-box dynamic. Suddenly, there’s more of a shared purpose and some work to do, together.

In life, it’s possible to just wander on and off elevators. You can move around on your own, get to where you want to be, and endure plenty of awkwardness.

Or, there’s the opportunity for someone to come alongside of you, an usher to guide you onto the elevator, engage you while you’re on the journey, perhaps even disembark with you at your destination floor, and maybe even join you for a future ride.

The chance of an elevator ride being completely silent when you know at least one other person in the metal box is drastically different from when it’s a collection of complete strangers (and silence is nearly a sure bet).

But more than just being a personal attendant, what if that person happens to know everyone else on the elevator, or indeed most of the people in the entire building. Now, their connection with you isn’t just companionship, it’s an opening to many avenues of camaraderie. You are riding in a vehicle that is part of a larger enterprise (rather than being a temporary casket), your presence is felt and communication takes place.

If you participate in this forum, you are associating with a community, you are following.

This is leading people so that they can follow.

Want more engagement? Find a leader that is leading, someone who can foster your followership and turn your elevator rides into a journey rather than a gauntlet to be endured.

And then promote the same kind of environment for others, even as an informal leader: inviting them into a community of common purpose, engagement, and collaboration.

This is leadership fulfilled; such service that will ensure that all the future ups and downs are not experienced alone, nor for nothing.


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and  A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017) —

along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.

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