There was a popular video game in my younger years called “Lemmings.” Its namesake is a small rodent infamously (and falsely) known for charging off of cliffs in stupefying acts of mass migratory suicide. The video game centered on the idea that you had a number of lemmings marching mindlessly across the screen whom you must navigate around certain obstacles and save from violent death.
The statement “you’re such a lemming” came to mean that you are a mindless follower, likely to fail in your endeavors.
Is being a follower a mark of failure?
Our culture certainly highly esteems leaders. We are taught to be leaders–in the classroom, in our communities, in our workplace. Get out there, get ahead, make your mark. Pave the way into new frontiers through your intuition, imagination, and vision!
Otherwise, you’re a lemming: one of those other guys who just does what he’s told.
It’s very ironic to me. We value leaders and denigrate followers. And no one stops to realize that without followers, there can be no such things as leaders. “He who leads when no one follows walks alone.”
Rather than groom ourselves to be good followers (loyal? diligent? trustworthy? honorable?), we push each other for that supreme title: “leader.”
I struggled for a while. I work with a lot of leaders: both people who have the actual title and those who have the experience and personality to be acknowledged as leaders in our field. I have no title, comparatively little experience, and hardly the personality that would normally be associated with leaders. And yet I felt the need to justify myself as a leader. I tried to find something in my work that could rightly lead to the acknowledgment that I too was a leader.
It was a stretch.
I recall being introduced once. Someone used the term “manager” as part of their description of me. The other person asked: “How many people do you have working under you?” I replied: “None.”
You can bet that raised an eyebrow. A manager? With no subordinates? Bizarre.
But true. I tend to be a manager of resources, tasks, projects…not people. In any book I’ve ever read, that definitely doesn’t qualify as being a leader.
Finally, I came to terms with it: I’m not a leader. Perhaps I provide some leadership at times (more accurately: oversight, accountability, responsibility), but no personality inventory or job description would characterize me as a leader.
I’m a follower. But I’m not a lemming.
I’m not a mindless pawn, a thing to be wielded by those who are leaders. I’m not doomed to failure because I have never achieved the status of “leader.” I’m just someone who contributes in other ways.
My existence and activity allows leaders to be who they are.
Too many cooks in the kitchen. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians. We laughingly acknowledge the difficulties that arise when we have too great a plurality of leaders and not enough followers to back them up. But still we don’t encourage the development of followers.
Leaders may want to save the world, and they may have the skills and vision to do so, but they also need the people to do it. In the video game, the lemmings themselves become the tools that lead to their own salvation and the successful attainment of their goal. The game player provides the direction, telling each lemming what to do, but if he had no lemmings to work with, there would be no progress to the next level. The game player needs lemmings like a leader needs followers.
Except that a human leader can benefit from the fact that his followers aren’t mindless rodents. They’re people, just like him/her, with their own talents, experiences, and knowledge that can supplement and complement the leader’s own vision and abilities. A leader who has well developed followers can become more than any book or seminar ever dreamed s/he could be.
Already I can imagine some people that know me saying, “No, but you are a leader!” See, still there is a sense that leadership is something that should be attained, that relegating oneself to followership is a bit of a let-down. Sure, many people would value the characteristics of loyalty, obedience, trustworthiness…but few people are comfortable with making an identity from them, with classifying someone they care about as a mere follower.
Some people are leaders–by role or by personality. But everyone is a follower. Seems to me like it would be worthwhile to make sure that we’re all following well, equipping ourselves with the virtues and skills to contribute to the achievement of our mutual goals and the successful implementation of a leader’s beneficial vision.
Learn about the book, Embracing Followership, which was inspired by this reflection!