Don’t Judge a Leader by Its Follower

Oddly enough, you probably don’t remember any of the games of “Follow the Leader” that you played as a kid. Most of the things you’re led to do are nondescript, and you don’t really identify with the leader or have any particular desire to emulate the person you’re imitating. You likely didn’t even choose the leader.

And that’s how many leaders are: forgettable.

Even those who actually get remembered for having some kind of impact are usually taking the credit for accomplishments that came from their visions and the teams they cleverly built to get things done. It takes a village to raise and execute upon an idea, and while leaders might steer the ship, the crew does a ton of work.

There are any number of reasons one joins a crew, and most of them have nothing to do with the captain. Sometimes one joins up for lack of alternate opportunities, or because there’s nowhere else to go, or because the money is good, et cetera. Similarly, leaders bring on followers for a variety of different purposes, some of which involve merely filling an important gap in the personnel roster that cannot wait for a proper candidate.

Critically, one learns from this that the fact of following a leader is in no way an endorsement of a leader, and that the selection of a follower is not a de facto endorsement by the leader. Followers can get behind a leader for a single reason even when they despise the person, and leaders can bring on a follower because (s)he has a rare and valuable skill despite being a rather horrid person otherwise. People are deep, complex, and nuanced, and their reasons for leading/following someone may be similarly deep, complex, and nuanced. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the follower’s/leader’s qualities will rub off on the others — that happens primarily when people want to be like leaders/followers in some way. Otherwise, there may be some temporary shifts in behavior, but these are likely to be righted upon notice, and there will certainly not be any significant changes in attitude (these are notoriously hard to change, for better or worse!).

More often than not, we don’t have the opportunity to choose leaders that sufficiently reflect our complex and nuanced thoughts, desires, cultures, and values such that we want to emulate them. When we do, it’s more of a mentor or coach than a leader. The rest of the time, we stick to a leader because (s)he can translate a specific vision of a particular type, and in which we want to play some role. In a lot of cases, that role is getting rewarded! It always amazes me when I hear one person ask another why (s)he works for some company that has been branded evil in some way — most folks don’t see themselves as having a lot of choice in where they work, and most “evil” companies pay rather well!

As such, the extent to which we judge followers by the leaders they are forced to choose is similarly astounding. The odds of any given leader and his/her vision, deeds, and personality being even reasonably representative of any given follower’s full slate of preferences and attitudes are low. So too are the odds rather small that one would actually identify with the leader and want to emulate said leader to any significant degree.

Granted, we glorify leaders to some degree, and perhaps even over-glorify them in attempt to give due respect to the function. But, there’s a difference between respecting the function, wanting to be good enough to be a leader, and wanting to emulate a given leader (as noted, rarely true for most leaders). To be sure, there are leaders that we admire for some reason or other, even when we don’t like them in general. For instance, even the detractors of President Obama must admit that he has had admirable moments of significant stateship*, and this must be granted in spite of any other feelings towards him, his policies, or his administration.

By the way, just because people do follow a leader, and actually act like a leader, doesn’t mean they have the same reasons for doing what the leader does. Take a look at the fiasco at Wells Fargo. Folks have been brushing people at different levels with the same broad stroke of “unethical,” which misses the nuance of what actually happened. At some levels, the lack of ethics was greed. At others, it was keeping a job and bringing home the proverbial bacon. The latter is a lot more understandable than the former, and it’s a lot harder to judge those who had the financial equivalent of guns to their heads to do things that helped them keep their much-needed jobs. It doesn’t mean these employees did the right thing, or that those who could have quit should have stayed anyway, but it does allow one to understand that unethical behavior on the part of followers does not necessarily match the unethical motivations and behavior on the part of a leader.

In short: as Derek Sivers pointed out, leadership is over-glorified.

(*an attempt at using a gender-neutral version of “statesmanship,” which was suggested to me by M.A.F. Stiglitz)