What do you call a leader without any followers?
Someone out for a walk.
That’s an old joke, but it’s true nonetheless: without followers, you can’t have leaders. Of course, the reverse is also true: followers need leaders.
To really engage followers, leaders need to embrace the reality that leading is about others. It’s about creating the right kind of relationship with those who choose to follow. The seminal word here is choose. The best followers have a strong sense of themselves and what they want to accomplish in their lives. Their decision to follow a particular leader flows from that self-understanding and sense of purpose; they see the person they’ve chosen to follow as someone who will help them develop their talents and achieve their goals.
The leader-follower relationship, in other words, is based on a quid pro quo arrangement. Demanding and discerning in their search for a leader worthy of their energy and loyalty, followers are quite willing to make sacrifices in the service of the collective work when they believe they’ve found the right leader.
Leaders’ chances of succeeding improve greatly when they allow the significance of this quid pro quo relationship to shape everything they do:
• How they assess the psychological needs of their followers before communicating important messages.
• How they use stories both personal and visionary to engage followers.
• How, especially in critical situations, they size up their options when considering which course of action to take.
A television series on the Kennedys that I watched recently portrayed JFK as continually gauging his relationship with his followers—probing for a deeper understanding of the shifting needs and concerns of the people he wanted to win over (and to stay won over).
The trappings and perks of leadership seduce many leaders into believing that it’s all about them. It’s not. It’s all about your followers: meeting their needs—and, yes, sometimes failing their expectations, but at a rate they can withstand—in ways that keep them engaged them, keep them focused on the collective goals you have set for yourselves. When this is the hallmark of the relationship you’ve created with your followers, anything is possible.