Tag Archives: followership

Am I the teacher of Italy?

While traveling, I am usually keenly–and hopefully humbly–aware that I am the foreigner.

In places like East Asia, it is obvious–my looks and language create clear distinctions between me and the local residents.

But during a recent trip to Italy, the separation was not so distinct, and thus, perhaps a bit confusing.

I was somewhat flattered when local Italians came up to me asking for the time–they couldn’t tell by looking at me that I don’t speak a word of their language. They saw the watch on my wrist, and so they knew I had a resource that could help them. So they asked.

An Italian young man asked me how to signal the minibus driver to stop.

Then there was the Italian girl who couldn’t figure out how to use the bus ticket validation machine.

I was pleased to be able to help each person in their need, filling in the gaps of their understanding.

But how can I teach Italians? Of what worth is my 72 hours of experience compared to their lifetime of living in that culture?

I have discovered that being an outsider can serve to equip us to help others, but it requires coming in with the posture of a learner.

Indeed, for my own survival, I had to figure out how to signal the minibus driver and how to validate my bus ticket. Having learned these necessary skills, I could then share them with others.

But beyond being a learner (or survivalist?), the greater asset is to be a good follower.

I learned how to signal the minibus by watching someone do so before the previous stop. I learned to validate my bus ticket by letting someone else get on before me. Having observed closely, I could then replicate the activity according to my own need.

But this kind of following requires humility and patience. I have to be willing to let others crowd onto the bus before me; if I rush in, I will have no example to follow. And I have to be honest about what I don’t know, and what I need. I have to be willing to make the investment of energy and awareness in order to acquire the resources I need to go about my day.

Having acquired these new skills, with relatively minimal experience, I then have something to offer to the benefit of others…even Italians, on their home ground.

Am I the teacher of Italy? Certainly not, if that statement comes from a place of arrogance or American imperialism.

But, from the place of being a learner, a follower, I can effectively equip myself–not just to tend to my own needs–but to be available to serve others. In that respect, not only am I the teacher of Italy, but I can become the teacher of the world.


Another reflection from my trip to Italy can be found in the next post.

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Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Life


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Review: Followership (by B. Kellerman)

Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, by Barbara Kellerman (261 pgs; 2008: Harvard Business Press)

The topic of followership has come to the forefront of my thinking over the last 13 months, ever since I read the book A Vision of the Possible in November 2011. I style myself much more of a follower than a leader, and have often realized the lack of literature that serves to highlight the role and promote the growth of those who function with relatively little power, authority, and responsibility.

And so, my quest began to answer the question: where is the book that is written for me? Where is the book concerned with encouraging me to do well in my following, rather than trying to convince me that what I need is to become a leader?

In all honesty, I believe that I will in fact need to end up writing this book, as I have yet to find one. However, in the meantime, I am doing my best to familiarize myself with the books that have been written, such as they are.

Kellerman’s book, while still not the ultimate guide for encouraging followership that I am hoping for, is a helpful exploration of the realities of contemporary culture as regards the leader-follower dynamic. As a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, she is primarily concerned with followership within the realms of business and politics. However, her aim of promoting the reality of the follower as an integral part of any organization is well achieved in this book.

She works with very clear definitions of follower and followership, and details many of the circumstances in our modern day which are establishing an environment where those in subordinate positions can no longer be ignored. The Internet, both in providing accessibility to information and social networking platforms, is one of the factors that she highlights.

Kellerman does an excellent job of raising awareness about followership, making the case that followers–especially when they operate as a group–cannot be ignored. CEOs can no longer dictate policy without heeding the masses of workers that are below them on the org chart. Whether in support of favored leaders or in opposition to bad leaders, a group of followers binding together is a powerful influence. Equally so, a group of followers which stands by doing nothing, tacitly agreeing to the dictates of leaders, can contribute to horrendous mistakes.

While she offers a four (or five) part scheme for categorizing followers (effectively based on level of engagement), this paradigm did not strike me as particularly useful. The lines separating the categories are far too blurry (is this person a Participant or an Activist?) and there were no clear implications of being able to correctly label someone. As a tool to heighten awareness aimed at leaders, perhaps it is helpful, but again I find myself looking for the book that is clearly directed to us followers with the purpose of improving us in our role as such.

The real-world case studies used provide engaging explorations of the role followers have played in significant political and corporate events of our modern era. Still, much of the text which could be aimed directly at followers is slanted towards the ideas of weighing risks, self-preservation, building one’s influence…with the basic dictum that to be a good follower is to do something (either oppose or support). I’m looking for more specific engagement with the day-to-day realities of following well, the challenges, obligations, and opportunities of using our (lack of) position in the most positive of ways.

This book is extremely well-researched, and highlighted for me a number of resources that I will explore next. It was also surprisingly readable; I am not a huge fan of academic leadership literature, government analysis, or the dissection of corporate culture, but I found Kellerman’s work to be very approachable and free from jargon.

While it would be helpful for anyone, this book is probably still best for leaders rather than followers. In raising awareness about the importance and potential power of followers, it is highly effective. To a lesser degree, it may prove motivational to followers who underestimate the value they can contribute and the possibilities they have–especially in groups–for bringing about constructive change.

As for me, I will continue to work my way through the other followership books on my shelf, and further refine my own ideas for how to encourage others like me to be the very best followers we can. This book was a worthwhile step in my journey, and I recommend it to those who have chosen to ignore the fact of followership or who have yet to engage with the reality of this category of contribution.


Posted by on December 28, 2012 in Reviews


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Follower = Failure?

A Guidebook for Life?

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.

Leader? No.

Lemming? No.

Follower? Yes.


Learn about the book, Embracing Followership, which was inspired by this reflection!


Posted by on July 23, 2012 in Life


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