I am a follower, not a leader. I don’t presume to explain how to be a good leader. I know great leadership when I see it, but I’m hardly qualified as a leader myself. I have never held an executive title. I’ve managed oh, about eight people at one time—and pretty haphazardly at that. I stink at delegating. I do not like confrontation.
Given that, I have no desire to be a leader.
Let me disabuse you of the notion that I lack ambition. I am very much a perfectionist overachiever. My goalposts are just a bit…different. I strive to be what is called an “exemplary follower.” In the typology of followership, that is the gold standard. And I would like to be part of the gold standard. What are exemplary followers? According to Carnegie Mellon professor Robert Kelley, “Exemplary followers inspire others, they take charge when others are unwilling and unable, they ask the hard questions, they enable their teammates to do their jobs effectively.”
That sounds like leadership to me.
Naturally, one problem with talking about leadership are the varied definitions of leader. We often by default define leaders as those who have people working under them, fancy titles, and a take-charge personality. That is not necessarily leadership—or, at least, that does not necessarily represent good leadership.
Kevin Kruse, writing in Forbes Magazine, systematically breaks this down. Senior executives may be horrible at their jobs, despite their title. People with a bombastic personality may alienate others rather than inspire. As for individuals who have others working under them—they are managers. Hopefully they are good managers, but a manager does not a leader make. Kruse concludes, “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” Well, the definition of an exemplary follower fits under this metric.
Stop with the Unrealistic ‘Everyone Can Be a Leader’ Rhetoric
People can argue we are all leaders, or all have the capacity to become leaders. Kumbaya, hallelujah, let’s enable everyone to lead. “Be a leader, NOT a follower!” is a common mantra of parents everywhere. But the confusion over the definition of leadership confounds this overall plan. Not everyone can be a CEO. Not everyone can inspire from the pulpit. And not everyone is good at managing people and processes.
I am uncomfortable as a manager. Perhaps that is a millennial generation thing. (I don’t really like defining myself as a millennial, but being born in 1981, I am likely more millennial than Generation X). The negative side of considering oneself “first among equals”—as millennial bosses often do—is a healthy dose of self-consciousness. Maybe it’s a female thing too. My daughter has already started the habit of apologizing for everything even if she had nothing to do with it. “Ow!” I say as I stub my toe in some other room. “Oh, sorry Mommy,” says the three-year old.
We worry much more about our girls being stuck as followers than about boys. There are social bases in this, and we fear we inadvertently subvert a girl’s ability to lead. We also worry she will follow others blindly and be led to bad choices, especially as a teenager. Such is the heart of Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign. You know the deal: we tell girls to stop being bossy, but we praise a boy who may act similarly.
Eh, I don’t know. I call my son bossy all the time. Being bossy is not the same as being a leader. I don’t care what definition of leadership you use. In fact, another word for bossy might as well be “bully”.
Leadership Cannot Be Distilled into Personality Type
Do ENTJs run the world? Who knows? Myers-Briggs personality types are often self-reported, and are not determinative. If you want to be an ENTJ, you probably will end up testing as an ENTJ. It’s easy to argue that a high percentage of CEOs are ENTJs, or that ENTJs make exorbitant amounts of money, but there is actually no factual bases for these assertions.
For argument’s sake, let us describe the personality of an ENTJ (which stands for extraverted, intuititive, thinking, judging):
They like to think ahead, organize plans, situations, and operations related to a project, and make a systematic effort to reach their objectives on schedule. They have little patience with confusion or inefficiency, and can be tough when the situation calls for toughness.
They think conduct should be ruled by logic, and govern their own behavior accordingly. They live by a definite set of rules that embody their basic judgments about the world.
This sounds like our archetypal description of a leader. Is that what we are asking for when we insist our children be leaders, not followers? Are we setting our children up for failure by asking them to be something they likely are not? This goes especially for our girls. If we accept the conceit that personality type is at least partly nature, not just nurture, it is notable that ENTJs are rare—perhaps about 3 percent of the population—and, according to some metrics, only about 2 to 5 percent of males and 1 to 3 percent of females are of this personality type. Other estimates make the gender gap even wider, with 4.5 percent of men as ENTJs and 1.5 percent of women.
Set People Free to Be Who They Truly Are
I do not like putting people in boxes. That being said, there is value to looking at personality type to understand the different ways people think and interact with the world. Lest we dismiss Myers-Brigg profiles as being akin to zodiac signs and horoscopes (Look, this describes me! Oh wait, this might too, but I like this one the most), we can break things down further by looking at Jungian cognitive functions.
A classic ENTJ has as his or her dominant functions extroverted thinking and introverted intuition. This gobbledygook means most ENTJs excel at “ordering, structuring, specifying, and applying logic to situations” and are “focused on performing a task in the most efficient and productive manner.” They are also more likely to think strategically and have that classic “vision” we want to see in our leaders. If an ENTJ had a (very mundane) superpower, it would be efficiency. With a healthy dose of confidence.
Hubby is a classic ENTJ. True to ENTJ form, he really doesn’t take much stock in Myers-Briggs and is confident just being who he is, but he does exude the air of an extroverted field marshal. Is he automatically a better leader than I am? In the traditional sense, probably. But I don’t take that to mean I’m lacking somehow, or that the patriarchy has prevented me from finding my true potential. On the contrary, understanding more why I think the way I do has enabled me to do a true self inventory, develop my core competencies, and take pride in who I am.
What do I not want to do? I do not want to be out in front. I do not want to lay down the law. I do not want to be criticized. What do I do? I build consensus. I create processes for open communication. I will gladly endure confrontation if I am faced with injustice. I am the coach, or maybe the waterboy. I lead from behind. If I had a mundane superpower, it would be empathy. With a huge side of loyalty. If I were in a Hogwarts house, I’d be a Hufflepuff to hubby’s Griffyndor. If I were in a Divergent faction, I’d be in Amity.
From Being the Boss to Servant Leadership, or ‘Followership’
Empathy has become a buzzword in leadership development circles. It is a core component in “servant leadership,” popularized by Robert Greenleaf. In the typology of leadership styles, a servant leader is participatory and exemplifies the values of “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community.” A servant leader eschews the top-down hierarchical style and thinks of himself as a servant first, one who leads as a way to better serve others. Emotional intelligence is a key component of this form of leadership. To me, this sounds like a no-brainer. I cannot even conceive of this being a novel concept (and novel it is not, as it was also advocated by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu.)
I have been lucky to work for people who display many of the characteristics of servant leadership. I greatly admire Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who typifies integrity, loyalty, empathy, and humility. His organization displayed how culture makes an organization operate, how leading by influence and having a stake in the end product is the way to success, and how a flattened network—with collaboration and cross-coordination—is best for all involved.
It’s a strategy perfect for the millennial generation. There is a stereotype about millennials as lazy, not ready for leadership, and not in tune with their company’s goals. However, despite the negative press, millennials are self-starters, entrepreneurs, and highly communicative. We are beginning to acknowledge that perhaps this new cohort has great qualities. But we do them a disservice when we use this revelation to prove millennials are a generation of leaders. We have de-emphasized followership, and that is wrong and counterproductive.
Submission Is Not a Dirty Word and Followership Is Not Brainless
I do not personally ascribe to the concept of wives submitting to their husbands (why does it have to be gender-specific? Yes, that was rhetorical; please don’t start mailing me Bibles)—but I am not horrified by it. To submit simply means to come under the mission of another person. As that INFP personality type, I am naturally submissive—not a meek and controllable doormat, but one who excels at implementing others’ visions. I do well in a career environment that calls upon that skill, and it works well in my marriage. As soon as I accepted that, I felt like a whole person in terms of my career and relationships, one who wasn’t trying to achieve that brass ring of leadership.
It often takes courage to be an exemplary follower, courage to call out superiors when they are going down the wrong path, courage to create new systems and processes, courage to express an unpopular opinion. For those who are religious, our careers can provide one of the greatest opportunities we have to grow closer to God.
As I’ve mentioned, I like to tell people my Harry Potter house would be Hufflepuff. It’s an unusual choice. But I have to ask, why did J.K. Rowling make almost all our heroes, including the hapless Neville Longbottom and the insufferable Hermione Granger, Gryffindor? Yes, they are courageous leaders, even some that do not seem so at first. But not all courageous leaders have to be Gryffindors. Sure, Gryffindor is the house of courage, but being a Gryffindor does not preclude other qualities, such as loyalty, intelligence, or deception. There are very few examples of a Hufflepuff demonstrating courage or leadership, Cedric Diggory notwithstanding. By trying to make a point of not judging a book by its cover, Rowling instead promotes the idea to an entire generation of kids that there is only one true path to being a hero.
Followership is the secular version of Christian discipleship, and, as a complement, Jesus pretty much is servant leadership defined. Jesus commanded to his disciples, “Follow me.” As Dr. David Rath points out, “in the four gospels, the word follow occurs 91 times,” and the theory of followership began with Kelley realizing Christ’s followers changed the world. Would we deride the Apostle Paul as “just a follower”?
How to Be an Exemplary Follower
A few years ago I was asked to convey career lessons I’ve learned to a small group of college students. As I was preparing my notes, I realized that, in the end, it doesn’t matter if one defines these characteristics as some sort of “followership” or servant leadership. We can boil them down to one statement: You need to be a good “follower” before being a good leader. And regardless of where you are in this leader-follower spectrum, the following exhortations apply.
- Throw out the checklist. Your job isn’t a laundry list of tasks. Your job is to use your talents and strengths to further your organization’s goals. No matter how small your job may seem, realize you are an important cog in the wheel. If you aren’t, then change that.
- Constantly search for opportunities to excel. In fact, if you are only doing 100 percent of what you are asked, you’re not even close to excelling at your work. (Think “pieces of flair.”)
- Don’t expect your work to fulfill you; find fulfillment in what you do. Don’t just complain, find solutions to fix problems. Leave things better than how you found them. Treat other people well. How you treat the janitor reflects on the culture and values of the entire organization.
- Cultivate a habit of helping and serving others. Find your strength and share it with your coworkers. I don’t care if it falls way out of your job description. Do it anyway. It’ll likely come back to you ten-fold. At the same time, be sincere in your desire to help. Do not—I repeat, do not—expect rewards or recognition for your efforts. If you are religious, this is where you employ the concept of reaping what you sow.
- Know your competency areas. Focus on maximizing that potential at least 70 percent of the time. For the other 30 percent, strive to improve yourself in your weaker areas. This goes along with the Jungian concept of dominant/auxiliary functions, and the shadow functions that emerge under stress.
Followership and leadership of course do not apply only to careers, so don’t ignore their impact in other important areas of life: parenthood, charity, faith. In fact, lessons from followership can help us raise our children to be kind, empathetic people, and focusing on only career success sends the wrong message to young peopple. The Making Caring Common Project reports data indicating “a large majority of youth value achievement and happiness above concern for others,” and that this belief is rooted in what parents model for their children. The five strategies the program outlines for raising caring children may sound familiar: making caring for others a priority, provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude, expand your child’s circle of concern, be a strong moral role model and mentor, and guide children in managing destructive feelings
There is nothing inherently wrong with being a leader. It is an admirable trait. But instead of focusing on whether our children are leaders or followers—which may indeed just be a matter of semantics—let us instead model the values we want our children to absorb.