Posted by: chrismaser | May 9, 2010

CHARACTERISTIC-6: Being A Good Follower

I must follow the people.
Am I not their leader?

Benjamin Disraeli, 19th century British prime minister

You must learn to follow before you can learn to lead. Learning to be a good leader means starting at the bottom of the ladder as a simple follower and learning about each rung and its relationship to every other rung as you climb the ladder to the top. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “To me there is something fine in the American theory that a private citizen can be chosen by the people to occupy a position as great as that of the mightiest monarch . . . and that . . . after having filled this position, the man [person] . . . goes back into the ranks of his fellow citizens.” Back into the ranks from which one arose. Down from the pinnacle of power to the status of a private individual.

Elizabeth Sherrill gives an excellent example of a man who rose from followership to leadership and then went back to followership with grace. As roving editor for Guideposts magazine, she once interviewed Harry Truman at his home in Independence, Missouri. As she and her family left the Truman home, her five-year-old son, Donn, began to cry in the back seat of the car.

“What’s the matter?” she asked Donn.

“I wanted to see the president!” he wailed.

“You did. You met Mr. Truman,” she replied.

“No.” He shook his head. “He wasn’t a president. He was just a man.”

“Just a man,” mused Sherrill. “Just a man who for a time had wielded more power than anyone else on earth. Just, Theodore Roosevelt would have said approvingly, an American president.”1

Beginning as a follower at the bottom of the leadership ladder is critical, because you, as leader, must never ask a follower to do something that you yourself are not willing to do—and one does not lead forever. It is therefore imperative that you know what it feels like to be a follower.

You can get a good sense of what I am talking about by watching the movie Doctor. William Hurt plays the part of a good but insensitive surgeon who is diagnosed with cancer of the throat and suddenly learns what it feels like to be treated as a patient. As a patient, he must fill out seemingly endless forms and wait interminably to be seen by the doctor. His privileged status as a doctor is moot because he must go to a doctor whose specialty not only is different than his own but also is a woman. And finally, he must face all the uncertainties of the doctor’s answers to his frightened questions.

Having seen himself as a doctor through his own eyes as a patient, he makes all the interns with whom he subsequently works spend time as patients so they will understand—with a great deal of humility—what it feels like to be on the receiving end of their services. This is why one must learn to follow before one can learn to lead.

A good leader always searches for signs of leadership talent among their followers and in so doing looks for certain characteristics that help identify a potential leader to encourage. These characteristics include (1) authenticity, (2) other-centeredness, (3) using adversity to advantage, (4) persistence, (5) learning from one’s mistakes, (6) focusing on positive thoughts, and (7) seeing, recognizing, and seizing an opportunity.2

Authenticity can be simply characterized as “what you see is what you get.” In other words, a person is simply who they are without any hidden agenda or put-on persona.

The person is other-centered as opposed to self-centered, which means the person is interested in serving rather than garnering power.

A potential leader has their share of failures and frustrations, but knows how to take advantage of adversity. What might be an obstacle to an average follower is a glorious opportunity to a ripening leader.

Persistence, which is the relentless pursuit of a goal, is a sure sign of a potential leader because perseverance is a prime ingredient for success in anything. William Penn observed, “Patience and diligence, like faith, can remove mountains.” And all leaders must, through sheer persistence, overcome mountains of rejection, dismissal, and repudiation to achieve the vision of their ideas.

Rather than beating themselves up for their mistakes, potential leaders learn from their mistakes because, as the late actress Rosalind Russell pointed out, “Flops are a part of life’s menu.” By learning from one’s mistakes, rather than berating oneself, a person’s error becomes the raw material out of which future success is forged.

Consider Jim Burke, chairman of the Johnson & Johnson, as an example. When he first became head of the division of new products, he was responsible for developing a chest rub for children, which failed on the market and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Burke expected to be fired over his failure, but when he was summoned by the chairman of the board, he received a surprising reception: “Are you the one who just cost us all that money?” asked Robert Wood Johnson. “Well, I just want to congratulate you. If you are making mistakes, that means you’re taking risks, and we won’t grow unless you take risks.”

Jim Burke remembered the lesson, and years later, when he became chairman of the board, he reminded other junior executives of the importance of taking risks and learning from mistakes.

A follower who focuses on positive thoughts by filtering out negative ones is on the trail of leadership. Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf shortly after birth, often counseled people to “keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.” Similarly, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was fond of saying, “No pessimist ever won a battle.”

But it was tennis player Billy Jean King who provided the most graphic example of positive thinking. Every time she made a bad swing with her racket, she followed it with the correct swing, even in a televised tournament. She was constantly correcting her mistakes as she made them and thus left the thought and feeling of the positive swing in her psyche.

Seeing, recognizing, and seizing an opportunity is a behavioral trait that stands out because it is rarely encountered. People who affect society and make great leaders are those who not only recognize an opportunity but also seize the moment. It is an important quality of leadership because, as author Dennis Waitley reminds us, “Opportunity rarely looks like an opportunity. Often opportunity arrives incognito, disguised as misfortune, defeat, and rejection.” People who recognize an opportunity and seize the moment are worth looking for in the crowd.

Taken in isolation, these traits, while good in and of themselves, do not constitute a potential leader. When taken in the collective, however, the potential for a servant leader is clearly present. Conversely, a follower who wants to become a leader must learn to nurture these qualities.

In addition to the above qualities, a good follower must exhibit the following characteristics, but none of them mindlessly:

1. Loyalty—This implies commitment not only to the leader and the leader’s vision but also to the principles of sound leadership. Loyalty manifests itself in one’s willingness to daily work with enthusiasm on your leader’s behalf. But, as Petra Kelly reminds us, “Loyalty toward the whole of life is far more important than any ideology.”

2. Understanding—The ability to articulate and integrate into one’s daily life the vision and principles espoused by one’s leader.

3. Candor—The courage to speak one’s mind clearly, succinctly, and authentically to one’s leader and fellow followers but gracefully and in private.

4. Listening—This demands attention and care and must be coupled with observing the subtle nuances of a leader’s speech and behavior if maximum clarity of understanding is to be achieved.

5. Predictability—Being accountable for one’s own behavior in such a way that one’s leader knows who can be counted on when the need arises.

6. Creativity—Having a beginner’s mind that allows one to discover or help discover novel solutions to the problems of leadership as they arise.

7. Effectiveness—Getting things done in a manner that helps accomplish the intent of the action.

8. Efficiency—Getting things done in the most expedient and cost-effective manner without compromising either the quality or principles of sound leadership.

9. Insightfulness—The ability to ask relevant, probing questions and foster innovative ways of seeing and thinking about ordinary things; the ability to advance new perspectives, which set the tenor of the success that follows.

10. Honesty—Allows a leader to know a person can be trusted to accurately represent the leader’s vision and/or principles with the highest standards of integrity.

11. Persistence—The tenacity to attack a problem with gusto and stay with it until it is either solved or all conceivable possibilities have been exhausted.

12. Practicality—Being grounded enough to face a problem head on and come up with thoughtful, positive suggestions about how to resolve it, even when the possibility of success seems bleak.

13. Communicative—The personal commitment to keep one’s leader abreast of important developments before they come as surprising news from others who might put the leader in the awkward position of having to play catch-up from a position of disadvantage.

14. Helpfulness—The constant willingness to lend a hand to further the leader’s vision and/or to uphold the leader’s principles.

15. Complementary—The willingness to lend a hand in such a way that one’s thoughts and actions complement–rather than compete with–those of one’s leader in achieving a particular end.

16. Cheerfulness—The choice and determination to maintain an even-tempered disposition come what may; hence the ability to smile in the face of adversity and make things a little brighter for everyone.3

The forgoing characteristics are also those of a servant leader because a servant leader must at times be a follower.

Series on Qualities Of Leadership:

• The Essence Of Leadership: Personal Values And Philosophy Of Life

• Characteristics Of An Effective Leader

• Characteristic-1: Other-Centered And Authentic

• Characteristic-2: An Honorable Person

• Characteristic-3: Balancing The Masculine And Feminine

• Characteristic-4: A Therapeutic Person

• Characteristic-5: Detachment And Equanimity

• Characteristic-7: Servant Leadership

• Characteristic-8: Sharing Leadership

• Characteristic-9: Willingness To Delegate Authority

• Characteristic-10: Encourages Leadership In Others


  1. Elizabeth Sherrill. Meeting Mr. Truman. Guideposts. February (1997):7.
  2. The preceding discussion is based in part on: Victor M. Parachin. Mastering Your Universe—Five Simple Steps for Success. The Toastmaster 63 (1997):8-10.
  3. Richard G. Ensman, Jr. How To Be a Great Follower. The Toastmaster 63 (1997):19.

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection

This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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