Bottom's Up: Why Followers Matter
Editor's Note: Starting today, Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman will comment each week on "followership," a concept she introduces in her post today.
Leaders matter. But - Obama-mania notwithstanding - they don't matter as much as we think. Moreover they matter less now than they ever did before. Our fixation on leaders is not only misguided, it's downright mistaken. Leader-centrism confuses or denies the complexities of history, which include a cast of characters whom I call followers.
Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors. Though we associate the word "follower" with weakness, timorousness, and even failure - every one wants to be a leader, no one wants to be a follower - in fact leaders must, by definition, have at least one follower. And just as we tend to overestimate the power of leaders, so we usually underestimate the power of followers.
Consider the war in Gaza. In times past, decisions in this part of the world were made by leaders - by kings, presidents, and prime ministers from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S., as well as the heads of the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But now the collective capacity of these leaders to call the shots is diminished. They are hemmed in on all sides not only by each other, but also by large numbers of followers turned protesters, who in large numbers of places demand to be heard.
Overwhelmingly these protesters in the Middle East are against Israel and for Hamas (or, more broadly, for the Palestinians), and in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia, they are taking on those ostensibly in charge, obliging them to be less conciliatory and more militant. While the situation particularly constrains Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the problem is widespread across the region, to the point where ordinary people, fueled by anger against Israel, limit the policy options of their leaders.
Nor is public outrage confined to countries most directly affected. Twenty thousand people recently protested in London, another 20,000 across Germany, 30,000 in Paris, thousands more in places such as Oslo and Stockholm, not to speak of the near three quarters of a million who took to the street in Istanbul. This is not to say the mob rules, but to point out that people without obvious sources of power, authority or influence threaten their leaders.
The arc of human history has in fact favored followers over leaders, most strikingly during the Enlightenment, when democratic theory gradually advanced, and again after the American and French Revolutions, with the sudden advent of democratic practice in the form of the overthrow of rulers by the ruled. Now, in the 21st century, for a range of reasons that include changes in culture and technology, and generational shifts as well, followers are becoming stronger and leaders weaker.
Each week this blog will explore and expose the power of followers. Leaders will not of course be excluded from the discussion. But nor will they take center stage. They will be obliged to do here what they do in real life - share the spotlight with those who in theory, but not necessarily in practice, are much less powerful than they.
Posted by: blexie1 | January 15, 2009 3:18 AM
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Posted by: diffenbach | January 15, 2009 3:12 AM
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