Followers and Leaders

Closing The Gap … Between Leaders And Followers

November 20, 2012 • LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development, STRATEGY & MANAGEMENT, Talent Management

By Barbara Kellerman

What accounts for the fact that leaders have been descendant and followers ascendant? Where to begin?


Once upon a time, long, long ago, leaders ruled the earth. The world was filled with autocracies – tribes, groups, and, finally, nation states – not democracies, in which it was presumed that leaders led and the rest followed. Leading, then, used to be quite simple. Not that leaders in times past did not face their own particular challenges – they did, including challenges from others hell bent on overthrowing them. What they did not generally need to trouble themselves with, however, were the great unwashed, the masses, their followers.

Of course smart leaders were aware of their followers – they had an interest in their well-being. Even so consummate a pragmatist as Machiavelli believed it was important to keep plain people sufficiently satisfied. In his classic of the leadership literature, The Prince, Machiavelli instructs his royal patron to take into account his subjects, to, in so far as possible, treat them well. A prince, Machiavelli wrote, should show himself a lover of virtues and he should recognize virtue in others. Moreover, he should enable his subjects to “follower their pursuits quietly” and, at “suitable times of the year,” keep them “occupied with festivals and spectacles.” Further, the prince should “make himself an example of humanity and munificence” – because it is in his own interest to give as well as to take.1

Withal, The Prince is a product of its time – a time in which the divine right of kings had currency, and in which it was widely presumed that rulers would rule, and the rest would acquiesce to being ruled. But, things change. In fact, one of my own contributions to the discussion of leadership in the 21st century has been to place it in an historical context, to point out that, like everything else, leadership and followership evolve over time, from what they were into something quite different. In this case the trajectory – from past to present – is clear. Leaders are weaker than they were, and followers are stronger. This is not to say that leaders are without power, authority, or influence. Nor is it to claim that some day soon the meek shall inherit the earth. Rather it is to surface a truism that in the contemporary leadership literature is ignored altogether, as if it were irrelevant or unimportant, which decidedly it is not. It is to point out that over the last several hundred years, certainly since the American and French revolutions, patterns of dominance and deference have changed – not a little but a lot – and that these changes continue apace, into the present and, likely, into the future.2

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