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Do We Need Followers To Be a Leader?

Do We Need Followers To Be a Leader?

Do we need followers to be a leader? How do we position ourselves as a leader in any given context?

followers and leadership in organizationsOver the past couple of weeks I have been confronted again with the question about what leadership looks like in the context of there being no organization to lead. Can you be a leader without followers? It seems obvious that to be a leader you must have followers, does it not? But what if being a leader is also defined by developing a following? That would suppose that you actually start off without followers, doesn’t it? The context was a discussion in my leadership class as we studied the novel, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Students were asked to explore the book from the context of the development of leadership. How did the boys in the novel develop “organization” and how did leadership fit into it? One of the questions voiced was, “Can you have leadership without an organization?”

For me in my coaching role the question becomes, “How can you show leadership if you have no followers?” I have come to the conclusion that leadership or a leader in some form is a requisite to starting any venture or activity. Whether that person sees the process through to conclusion or not is another question – think of a start-up entrepreneur who launches an enterprise but must pass it off to others once it reaches a certain size.  But what if you are a “one person show”?  How can you be a “leader”? Here are some of my thoughts:

  • If you really believe that what you have to offer has value, you are showing leadership by being a resource to others.
  • You can provide leadership through your consulting or coaching practice (or anything else, for that matter) by Modeling the Way in what you are doing (Kouzes and Posner).
  • If “Leadership is doing the right things” (Drucker) then do whatever you are doing with consistency and authenticity.
  • Enable and encourage others’ leadership by demonstrating your own.
  • Figure out what you are passionate about and then act on it. Find a way to use that passion constructively. If you don’t know what you are passionate about, find a coach to help you.

The majority of the students in my class came to a similar independent conclusion – it wasn’t unanimous but most of them agreed with me that you can have leadership without organization. Indeed having or being a leader is the first step to starting anything…



John Whitehead, coaches’ individuals and organizations in becoming more effective by helping them improve their interpersonal communications, emotional intelligence and resiliency.


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