Leadership Is About Followers, Not The Leader

Leadership is one of the most overanalyzed and written about subjects ever. It is conventional wisdom that leadership is crucial for successful companies. Leadership is important even outside of work. Yet, very few people agree on what leadership is. Most of us have a vague definition that can’t be used well to identify who the real leaders are. We know leaders when we see them.

My favorite definitions would be blurbs like, “management is about doing things right; leadership is about doing the right thing,” and “leadership is about getting things done.” They are catchy, but they can’t help us to identify leaders in the organization.

Defining leadership quality is an impossible task and often leads to circular logic: we know that leaders have leadership quality because they are leaders, and that’s it. Human resources professionals will list tens or even hundreds of competencies that make a leader. Still, when you look at real leaders in the real world, none of them exhibit all these competencies. Some leaders may even exhibit apparent anti-leadership behavior on occasion. We all have weaknesses, and the same applies to leaders.

This is why it is so difficult to come up with a good definition and a clear set of traits and skills that everyone could agree on. There is always the next leader who we clearly see as a leader, and yet they violate some of the behaviors or don’t have the traits and skills we included in the leadership definition and minute ago.

Leaders have faults and shortcomings. They are not gods or superheroes. They are human beings who just happen to be in some way different, so we are willing to follow them. Leaders don’t have a specific set of traits and skills that is universal for all of them. Forget about competency models for leadership. Just getting the skills that another leader has won’t make you a leader. Some skills and traits will help you on the journey and make you a better person, but they won’t guarantee you will become a leader. There is nothing you could describe as a leadership competency.

Why do we follow others?

As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write in Nine Lies About Work, there is only one thing that will make you a leader. Followers. The only definition of leadership that is in any way useful is that a leader is someone who has followers.

You may think that I’m stating the obvious, but think about it. How many leadership competency models talk about followers? When was the last time you attended a leadership training that discussed what the followers expect from you and how they want to feel? We are so focused on trying to identify the skills and traits of a leader that we forget to think about the impact such a person has on followers. Why should anyone spend their energy following you? Why should anyone devote themselves and take the risks of believing in you and following?

Leadership is not about your place in a hierarchy or your skills and traits. It is about having at least one person who is willing to follow you. It is not about you. It is about them. This then changes the whole conversation about leadership to the one where we ask, “why do we follow other people?”

The answer is also not easy, but it is a bit easier than trying to define leadership. We follow others because we believe in them in some way. They are able to connect us to the team. They are able to connect us to the mission. They can explain our place in the universe, care about us, help us find the meaning of our existence, recognize our strengths, and believe in us. This is how we want to feel at work, and that is what leaders do. They help us to feel that way.

While it is difficult to rate how good a leader someone is based on some competency model, it is much easier to evaluate them based on how they make us feel. We don’t know whether someone is a visionary, but we know that they made us feel excited about the mission of the company. We don’t know whether they can motivate others, but we know that they made us feel proud of our accomplishments today. We don’t know whether they can develop others, but we know they helped us use our strengths at work, making us happy.

There is more than one way how you can accomplish this. Each leader has their style and way of going about it. That is why leadership is so difficult to define in the real world. Each leader is unique, and they bring their idiosyncrasies with them. It is not what the leaders say but what feelings they create in their followers.

How do we measure leadership?

Buckingham and Goodall claim that there is only one thing that most leaders have in common. They are extremely good at something, anything. They have worked on one or two skills and mastered them. This is their unique quirk. Their unique strengths are so special and pronounced that we follow them. Leaders show us a glimpse of deep mastery of something, so we are willing to ignore all their faults and follow them.

Identify and cultivate your uniqueness rather than try to mimic someone else and follow some competency model. Competency models lead to sameness. Sameness is not worth following. It is the unique quirk of your personality, something that makes you special, that may be key to reaching your followers. The more this idiosyncrasy of yours shows, the more passionate followers you get.

Each of us has different expectations from our leaders. Only because I follow someone doesn’t mean he or she would be a great leader for you. There is no guarantee that only because someone is a great leader for one team in one company they can repeat this success at another company for another team. Most leaders have weaknesses that frustrate us. But because we follow their strengths, we are willing to forget their shortcomings.

According to Buckingham and Goodall, the best measurement of leadership is how the followers describe the eight aspects of how they feel at work:

  1. I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
  2. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  3. In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
  5. My teammates have my back.
  6. I know I will be recognized for my excellent work.
  7. I have great confidence in my company’s future.
  8. In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

If they positively react to these topics, their manager is also a leader who makes them feel this way. These aspects are a reasonably good measure of a leader’s effectiveness. If you want to find out who the leaders on your team are or if you want to get feedback on your leadership ability, these are the questions to ask.

Putting it all together

Leadership is about having followers. So what does it take to make a leader? Getting the first follower. By being able to convince one person to support your idea and follow, you become a leader.

There is no universal recipe for becoming a leader. Forget about trying to eliminate all your weaknesses. All you achieve is to be the same as everyone else. Focus instead on a couple of your strengths that are making you special in some way. Make yourself unique and worth following.


What is your take on leadership? What competencies do you think every leader needs to have? Why do you follow others? Why do people follow you?

Photo: 8385 / Pixabay.com

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Categories: Leadership

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