What If You Lead and Nobody Follows?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall? Have you stopped beating your wife? What if you gave a party and no one came?

These are three conundrums of different types, but they all have one thing in common—they play on the ambiguities of language. They sound simple, but contain multiple references that cause us to do a double-take.

To that list, add “What if you lead, and nobody follows?”

Noonday Ventures writes about Dirty Word #6—Followership:

OK, do a quick scan of your bookshelf, podcasts, and mental catalog of leadership talks. How many have you heard on the art of following well?

After looking through literally hundreds of those artifacts collected over twenty years, I found exactly…. ONE!
(Incidentally, it was a very useful talk given by a leader at a high-growth church known for its strong leadership.)

Why is that? Why is it that when someone quotes the tired saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” we really see only one good option – to lead! I’d guess there are a lot of reasons, but our world certainly glorifies heroic leaders whose brilliance single-handedly tilts the earth to the benefit of their grateful followers.

He could have cited this chestnut: “Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes.” There are leaders, and there are followers; which will you be— a leader, or a butt-watcher? That seems to be the question, as it is usually posed.

But can this be right? Is our mania for leadership just a social phenomenon of glorifying winners and denigrating losers? Or is there some linguistic and conceptual confusion going on here?

In fact, ambiguity abounds:

• One HR friend tells me, “the leadership area is vague; they can’t figure out if it’s a verb or a noun.”

David Maister says, “I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous.” (But what does David really think?).

• James G. March (Stanford Professor, gurus’ guru, “the Miles Davis of organization theory”) says “I doubt that ‘leadership’ is a useful concept for serious scholarship. The idea of leadership is imposed on our interpretation of history by our human myths, or by the way we think that history is supposed to be described. The fact that we talk about leaders and attribute importance to them is neither surprising nor informative.” [HBR Oct 2006, HBR Interview]

Take that, sled-dog metaphor-slinging consultants!

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The word “lead” is confusing because it used to refer one thing—but the thing it referred to is changing. Hence the ambiguity.

It used to refer to those at the “top” of vertical, command-and-control, fixed-boundary silos called “companies.” “Companies” used to be the atomic unit of business; they contained fixed groupings of people called “organizations.”

Today—not so much.

Today, the atomic unit of business is the individual, not the company. “Organizations” are fluid, crossing corporate boundaries.

“Companies” still exist, of course, but a more useful idea might be “business”—and businesses are ever-changing, morphing blobs of projects and teams that get together to accomplish projects—then move on.

The primary dimension of interaction is becoming horizontal, not vertical. “Leader” becomes a confusing word because of the past vertical associations.

So what’s a “leader”? It’s a role. A role played at a particular point in time by a particular person with appropriate-for-the-moment behaviors and attitudes. And it all changes.

What about “everyone needs to be a leader”? It’s true. Confusing—because of the linguistic heritage—but true. We all need to be able to influence others, and to be influenced by others. That’s how horizontal relationships work.

But we sure could use a new word for all this.

How about “trust”?

0 replies
  1. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Charlie, your blog brought to mind an old chestnut that I still use occassionally to illustrate a functioning team with a shared purpose. It continues to amaze managers and team members that they can learn some principles of leadership, trust and cohesive teaming from geese. It’s called, "Lessons from Geese". It was adapted by Angeles Arrin & Milton Olson from a speech. There are 5 lessons based upon five facts.

    Fact As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird following it. By flying in a V-formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if it flew alone. That’s a fact. 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

    Lesson 1 People who share a common direction & a sense of community can get where they are going quicker & easier because they are traveling on the trust of one another

    Fact Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag & resistance of trying to fly alone & quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.

    Lesson 2 If we had as much sense as geese, we will stay in formation with those who are headed were we want to go & be willing to accept their help, as well as give ours to others

    Facts When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into formation & another goose flies at the point position

    Lesson 3 It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks & sharing leadership. With people as with geese, we are interdependent on each other’s skills & capabilities & unique alignments of gifts, talents & resources

    Fact The geese in a formation honk from behind to encourage those in front to keep up their speed

    Lesson 4 We need to make sure our honking from behind is encouraging & not something else. In groups where there is great encouragement against great odds, the production is much greater – the power of encouragement. At the center of encouragement is "courage", & the root of courage is a Latin word that means "heart." Maybe honking strengthens the heart.

    Fact When a goose gets sick, or wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of formation & follow it down to help & protect it. They stay with it until it is either able to fly again or dies. Then they launch out on their own with another formation or catch up with the flock.

    Lesson 5 If we had as much sense as geese, we too will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

     I’d be curious to hear reactions/comments from you & your readers.



  2. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Charlie – The flattening of corporate hierarchies into more fluid, ad hoc structures, is an exciting prospect. For leaders/managers/mentors, it may mean surrenduring the "I’m in charge" mentality, but it also means getting to be a role player on someone junior’s team and sometimes just getting the hell out of the way. I’ve had some experience with this at one large company in which members of my group were put in charge of different initiatives, depending on their skills and interests. It gave them good experience and better visibility in the larger organization. Sometimes I was asked to join a team (which was flattering), other times I wasn’t (which was a relief). It made managing the group (not to mention being a member) a lot more fun and interesting.

    Barbara – I’m usually not that wild about anthropomorphic analogies, since they can always backfire on you, but the ‘lessons from geese’ one holds up pretty well. (Of course, for those of us who live on migratory paths, the sight of a formation landing is not all that welcome. Geese are aggressive, noisy, and incredibly messy. But, then again, so are a lot of people.)

  3. Philip J. McGee
    Philip J. McGee says:


    I think you’re right to consider trust and leadership as close to synonymous.  Leadership is one of those words like god or love which can only be defined by what it isn’t.  In India there is a word, “neti-neti”, which means not that and is useful when attempting to define words describing principles.  T

    he old comment about pornography which says “I can’t tell you what it is but I know it when I see it” might also be useful in describing leadership.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    I have come to know geese in the obnoxious way Maureen mentions, but I remember learning about them as a child in Michigan and Minnesota, in the sense that Barbara’s metaphor brings to mind.  It does what a good metaphor does; make you think.  Thanks to all for adding some context to the "other" L-word!

  5. Ted Harro
    Ted Harro says:


    Interesting post.  I think you have already mentioned an important synonym for leadership near the end of your comments: "influence." 

    I share the skepticism about leadership as a general topic.  Having worked for a consulting and training company that had a whole service line around leadership, I long ago came to believe that leadership divorced from its specific context is nonsense.  I see the act of leading as an act of service – influencing a particular group or function or business or whatever toward a more positive outcome.  That’s it.

    In fact, the confusion of leadership and position/status is the root of all sorts of problems in many companies.  I know of professional firms where there is constant squabbling about who will lead a certain office or practice group – simply because no one in the partner peer group wants someone else to have the "leadership" title instead of them. 

    Most true leaders (ie influential people who gain their influence through serving the interests of the group) will tell you that if you aspire to a "leadership" role for ego-driven reasons, you’re bound to be disappointed. 

  6. cathy
    cathy says:

    I like the post.

     In my opinion,

    Leadership is service. 

    Leadership is putting others before yourself. 

    Leadership is being truly interested in the wellfare of people that you have some influence in there lives. 

    The proverbial agape’ love should be at the heart of every leader. 


    In the corporate setting, leadership is placed like a tag or hat on someone that senior management wants to wrangle with most of the head aches and responsibilities, but never given the authority.  This is what I call the old "I am going to dump all my stuff on you and take the credit for it and not pay you, but I am going to tell everyone how much of a leader you are".  After the project is over you may get the chance to be a leader once again.  

    Give me a break!!!!! 

    I see it about once a month. 

    On a side note, It is interesting to observe the aging baby boomers.  There views on politics, work ethic, and most of all leadership.



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