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Are leaders made by followers?

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The first time I encountered this idea, around 25 years ago now, I found it an assault to my classical training as a psychologist.  Over time though, I have come to understand that the question of whether leaders are born or made is the wrong question.  The right question is a sociological and anthropological question:  what role does “leadership” play in organizing society and what are the different ways we use the concept?

At an organizational level, I have become convinced that leadership resides in the followers.  There are times when someone is in the right place at the right time and it all comes together.

The process begins with the people talking to each other in a bounded space, such as an organization.  These people talking together look for a leader, not to tell them what to do, but to represent who and what they want as a kind of shorthand to themselves and to the world.

The day a leader stops being representative of their collective wishes, either because s/he has stopped listening or because s/he no longer is what they want, then the relationship all falls apart and force needs to be used to maintain the position of “leadership”.

I suppose another sociological/anthropological question is the circumstances in which we allow leaders to run away with power and to use force against us.

It has long been agreed in the democratic English speaking world that the essence of good government is replacing leaders in an orderly way.  I wish we could see the same as the standard in business organizations.  The use of force against employees is a sign that something has gone wrong.  Alarm bells should go off.  And HR should be on the scene in a flash trying to understand why the leader believes so little in his or her people that s/he feels the need to bully them.

Young managers often don’t trust their subordinates.  A skill that is rarely talked about is the skill of believing in one’s people and seeing their strengths.

I would love to collaborate with someone on this.   It could make a great 2.0 app.



  1. Considine Considine

    The problem of succession is indeed a major one, in business as well as in politics. Ronald Reagan botched it, by chosing Bush Sr. as his running mate
    in 1980. Bush Jr. has no idea at all how to manage his own succession.

    “A skill that is rarely talked about is the skill of believing in one’s people and seeing their strengths.” How true…

    One has no business leading unless and until one is well acquainted with being a follower, with taking direction. Only then can a Brave be pulled out of the rank and file and made into a Chief. This is the philosophy behind the harsh treatment upperclassmen meet out to underclassmen in the academies where USA military officers are educated: one has no business giving orders unless one has extensive experience in receiving harsh and peremptory orders.

    “…the circumstances in which we allow leaders to run away with power and to use force against us.” The British stumbled on one system of government that rules out the seduction of power. It started with Robert Walpole in the early 18th century, prime minister to a King who could not speak English. The Americans dreamt up another system of government that achieves the same goal. It’s called the Constitution.

    Over the last 200 years, the American system has permitted three great disasters: the Civil War, Prohibition, and the Depression. Perhaps the erosion of civil liberties under GWB allows us to speak of 3.5 disasters.
    I cannot think of any comparable governance failures on the part of the British over the past 300 years. This is so despite the challenges and stresses posed by the loss of the American colonies, Napoleon, a brutal industrial revolution, two world wars, and the loss of Empire. Somehow, the British managed to take all this in stride.

    France is a peculiar hybrid of British and American constitutional ideas. Their system survived WWI, but not the fall of France in 1940. It did not survive
    the Battle of Algiers. It is interesting to see whether France will resolve its current malaise. In 18 years, the current French constitution will become the longest lived one since the French Revolution.

  2. scotchcart scotchcart

    Sorry, I don’t think we are on the same wavelength at all. I am specifically describing a point of view in which leaders emerge from a coalescence of the wishes of followers. Not vice versa.

    With this view of leadership leaders would never anoint their successors (except ritually).

    I doubt this view of leadership is relevant to institutions which value obedience to arbitrary authority. I’ll leave it to soldiers to decide on whether you have described armies correctly.

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