Followers Flex Their Muscles

Why do we obsess about leadership and spurn followership?

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Being a leader means having at least one follower—that's obvious. Why then do we obsess about leadership and spurn followership?

Hard-wiring is the easy explanation. Like other animals, humans organize themselves hierarchically, focusing on those at the top as opposed to those at the bottom. But we dwell on leaders and ignore followers for other reasons as well. Recent changes in culture and technology further skew our attention toward those with power and influence and away from those without. As a result, the so-called leadership industry is booming.

Leader-centrism, though, is not only misguided; it is mistaken. Followers have always mattered more than we generally believe. And as the arc of history testifies, they matter more now than ever. Think, for example, of the American and the French revolutions, the 19th-century rallying cry "Workers of the World Unite," and the 20th-century civil rights and women's movements. Each of these watershed moments was about one thing: the redistribution of power from those higher up to those lower down.

Nor has this trend ceased or slowed. As a consequence of the same recent changes in culture and technology, followers have become more powerful than ever, and leaders less. Howell Raines, Cardinal Bernard Law, Lawrence Summers, Paul Wolfowitz—these embattled leaders would no doubt be the first to endorse the notion that, even more than before, "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

But increased follow-power is not only about toppling ineffective leaders. It is also about circumventing them—about how ordinary people are simply taking matters into their own hands. Most of the recent sociopolitical movements fall into this category, as do the countless single-issue initiatives that are the 21st-century consequence of disappointments and dissatisfactions that spring to life with the mere stroke of a computer key.

Collectives. This is not to claim that campaigns of this kind are leaderless altogether. Rather, it says that their ability to drive change emanates not from single individuals but from people without power, authority, or influence who harness their collective passions in the interest of their collective causes. Organizations like Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, both once deemed radical, turned out to spearhead mass movements. And people previously considered powerless have been heard from in newly powerful ways. Gays and lesbians are staking their claims to legitimacy and equity in growing numbers. And demands now made by or on behalf of people who are mentally or physically impaired far transcend those made only a couple of decades ago.

Nor are the pressures from below being exerted only in the United States. China's ruling class has been obliged to change course not only by outsiders (like Americans pressing for reforms of China's Darfur policies) but, more important, by dissidents within the country who dare draw attention to misdoings, especially regarding their country's badly degraded environment.

None of this is to say that the powerless are about to take over from the powerful. As the thousands of monks who recently took on the military junta in Myanmar could attest, situations in which the weak are at the mercy of the strong remain endemic to the human condition. But to fixate on those who are high up at the expense of those who are lower down is to miss the mark—as well as the story.

Not all followers are alike, of course. Some subordinates go along mindlessly, while others are deeply committed and actively involved. Some subordinates strongly support their superiors, others oppose them, and still others remain agnostic. The point is that those of lower rank matter. They matter even when they do little or nothing—for the effect of doing little or nothing is to support the status quo. To take an extreme example, Hitler's followers made a difference, whether they were early and enduring acolytes like Joseph Goebbels; or drones who, in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's words, were Hitler's "willing executioners"; or bystanders who witnessed virulent anti-Semitism and did nothing.