Where Have All the Followers Gone?

Where Have All the Followers Gone?

7.6 min read

Greg L.Thomas

One Leader’s Perspective

In last month’s article entitled “Where Have All the Leaders Gone”, I discussed whether we really have a modern scarcity of leadership. My conclusion is that we don’t. Thankfully, leadership is still with us today in a vast array of organizations and families. It is not as prominent or recognized as in the past for many reasons. But there certainly is a gaping dilemma in many segments of our society.

This dilemma is that ongoing social problems continue to fester and plague our world. These social problems cry out for leadership! Many issues remain seemingly unsolvable; workers are frustrated, discouragement is rampant, poverty entrenches most inhabitants of our planet, families are fragmented, and the social fabric of our culture seems to be fraying at the edges. So where is the leadership needed to solve these difficult problems? In many cases it seems to have been rendered impotent! Particularly in the western world, leadership is more difficult and complex than ever because followers are fewer and often less committed. How did we get to this point in the 21st century? Let’s first look at a history of followership before we answer the vital question of where all the followers have gone.

Anciently, the equation of leader and follower was much simpler. All societies were hierarchical in structure. A select few were born into leadership positions because of family, power or wealth. The overwhelming majority of individuals were born into this rigidly structured society. When the leader gathered an army for war, thousands of followers gathered to fight for the king or leader. When the leader wanted to build a city, thousands of followers simply obeyed the edict. Why? The option was to do as your told or suffer dire consequences, including possible death. Around the world all cultures reinforced this hierarchical model. The relationship between leaders and followers was simple. The leaders held all power, authority and real wealth. The followers obeyed the leaders because it meant an opportunity for continued survival. Many who have studied leadership have read Sun Tzu’s writings ofThe Art of War, a collection of instructions for military leaders on how to conduct war. In one episode, Sun Tzu boldly beheads the King of Wu’s favorite concubines for simply not obeying his orders! Again, the relationship between leaders and followers was simple…but often ruthless.

Occasionally a follower might ascend to a position of authority or rulership due to a social revolution, assassination or a coup, but the basic structure remained the same for thousands of years. As far back as 5,000 years ago Egyptian hieroglyphics clearly differentiated between leaders and followers. Obviously, much of the relationship between ruler and “the ruled” was due to coercive power, so I use the term leader very loosely in this historical setting. However, even during these ages, intellectuals arose to emphasize that leaders had the moral responsibility to serve their followers and meet their needs. For example, Aristotle was concerned that those who aspired to be leaders in Greek society lacked virtue. The Chinese classics written in the sixth century B.C. are filled with advice about the leader’s responsibilities to their people. Confucius urged leaders to set a moral example. Jesus Christ told his followers that greatness means becoming a servant. Unfortunately, these enlightened voices were seldom heard or heeded by most leaders or rulers.

Things began to change when the Renaissance and Reformation occurred in Europe. Within a short period of time delicate democratic roots also entered the cultures of the western world. Followers (the average citizen) began to have a small voice and greater control of their lives. With the establishment of the Republics, followers in these nations began to have greater political control over their lives. The industrial revolution brought more change as people left their agricultural roots and moved to large cities. Unionism gave abused workers a voice and attitudes about followership continued to change. The major reason for this change was choice! No longer was the only real option to dutifully follow the leader or die. People who don’t like their political leaders vote for another. People who don’t like their jobs find another one or consciously reduce their efforts on the job. People who are unhappy with their religious heritage end their association and move on.

Not only does choice become an option in western cultures, it soon becomes a right and finally a source of pride and distinction. This human resolve has also spread to non-western cultures and if recent history is any indicator, it will continue to spread. When the communist governments fell in Eastern Europe, toward what type of government did the people turn? Who among us can ever forget the image of that single solitary figure standing down a tank in Tiananmen Square in China? The goddess of liberty will someday return to the people of China.  Inherent in the principles of freedom is the right to choose who and what we follow. The follower of the 21st century has far greater options, demands and expectations than the follower of 500 or 1000 years ago. Leadership scholar Robert Kelley has written, “Organizations stand or fall partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on the basis of how well their followers follow.” He continues by saying, “Instead of seeing the leadership role as superior to and more active than the role of the follower, we can think of them as equal but different activities.”

What does all this mean for the modern leader? It means followers have a choice to support who or what they desire and if they are not satisfied, they will vote with their feet…they walk away. No longer will followers accept a win/lose relationship with the leaders getting all they want at the expense of the followers. Yes, people are still willing to be followers, especially for a good or noble cause. However, followers expect more from leadership. They expect their leaders to care for them, treat them with dignity, act responsibly and help them to meet their needs. Any leader who fails to do these things will soon meet with an exodus of followers. The only exception to this is when followers willingly submit to an autocratic culture for personal or philosophical reasons.

Most people eventually come in contact with some type of leader. It may be a religious leader, political leader, corporate leader or education leader. This early contact will often influence how individuals view themselves in a leader/follower relationship. Unfortunately, when this initial experience is painful, it leaves a deepimpression on the follower. If the leader is abusive, self-absorbed or immoral the follower will become suspicious of the motives of the leader and the organization. This experience will weaken their desire to follow others in the future. Sadly, there has historically been far too much abuse and neglect of followers and this neglect continues in most organizations till this day! The expectations of followers have changed over the centuries, but many leaders still maintain the ego and arrogance associated with the tyrants of past ages. For this reason dedicated followers are fewer. As I mentioned in last month’s article, many people have become uncommitted observers. This is a growingforce in our modern culture and makes leadership more difficult than ever before. The observer is typically not interested in any particular mission or a vision, but in maintaining a distance from leaders and their followers.

Where have all the followers gone? They are still with us but they now have greater expectations and roles. They are waiting for a new breed of leadership that understands they are a precious untapped resource. They are looking for leaders and causes that allow them ownership in the cause and help them to reach their own individual goals. They are looking for leaders they can trust, admire, respect and follow. Educator Joseph Rost sums it up well when he opines, “Followers and leaders develop a relationship wherein they influence one another as well as the organization and society, and that is leadership. They do not do the same things in the relationship, just as the composers and musicians do not do the same thing in making music, but they are both essential to leadership.”

Comments to: gthomas@32john.com

About the author:

Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 9 years that of Regional Sales Manager.  He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. In August of 2000, Greg completed his studies for a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University. He is the founder of weLEAD Incorporated.


Hartwick Leadership Cases, (1994) Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Oneonta, New York: The Hartwick Humanities in Management Institute

Block, Peter, (1996) Stewardship – Choosing Service Over Self-Interest. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Wren, Thomas, (1995) The Leaders Companion – Insights on Leadership Through the Ages. New York: The Free Press

  • Quote of the Day

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

    — Proverbs 29:18