If you aren’t a leader, you’re a loser

athlete winner of the marathon

I was browsing for boys’ t-shirts at a big retail store the other day. I came across a shirt emblazoned with the words, “Lead, Never Follow.” Take a minute to consider what this is really saying. That you’re only valuable if you’re a leader? Because followers are losers? Putting aside for a moment the influence this kind of thinking has on little boy brains – it’s just bad advice. It’s shallow thinking.

First, it makes leadership out to be a competitive sport – but it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. To be a leader isn’t about “winning” against a group of lesser followers. If you think your followers are losers in a game of who-gets-to-be-boss, how can you possibly lead them well? If you want people to feel loyal and committed to you and your vision, they have to feel like you also respect and appreciate them. People treated like chumps will quickly “vote with their feet” and find someone to get behind who does respect them.

Second, what happens if everyone insists on being the leader? When everyone refuses to follow someone else’s ideas for fear of looking like a lousy old follower, you get a bunch of people stomping off in different directions. Nothing gets done when people are too busy jockeying to be in charge. Further, being a good follower is an unappreciated skill. They aren’t passive yes men or disgruntled critics. Effective followers bring a balance of constructive criticism and loyalty. They help make the leader effective in their role.

Third, this lame slogan oversimplifies something really cool and complex. Leader=good and follower=bad is an inaccurate generalization of the dynamic leadership process. To focus on the role of leadership leaves out the act of leadership. Leaders and followers have a symbiotic relationship and both are necessary to achieving mutually desirable outcomes. And being willing and able to shift roles based on the needs of the situation is a skill in and of itself. Leadership is a role, a process, and a relationship.

Maybe this kind of thinking doesn’t make for good t-shirt slogans, but it makes for better leadership.

“Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”— Barbara Kellerman

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”— Edith Wharton

“It is the men behind who make the man ahead.”— Merle Crowell