Is Following More Important Than Leading?

We glorify leadership and encourage everyone to be leaders. There are hundreds of books on leadership, a plethora of expensive leadership consultants, and even a pithy saying about being the lead dog in the sled.

But we can’t all be leaders. After all, then there would be no one to follow the leaders. And without followers, leaders cannot implement any change.

But isn’t it easy to be a follower? Don’t you just do whatever the leader tells you to do?

In an engaging 3-minute narration to a shaky homemade video, Derek Sivers makes the case that following is hard and may be even more important than leading.

In case you didn’t watch the video, his key points are:

  • The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.
  • The best way to create a movement is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.
  • Everyone needs to see the followers, because new followers emulate followers – not the leader.

It’s a compelling thought: The best way to lead might be to follow.

Although Derek doesn’t point it out, there’s also a lesson here for leaders. I found another video of the same event but taken from a different angle. In the second version, we see that the person was dancing alone for a long time before the first follower joined in; much longer than it seems from the video above.

As a leader, you have to be willing to dance by yourself for a long time. You have to stick to your mission. So make sure your mission is one that you enjoy and believe in.

Leadership lessons from the dancing guy.

(Video h/t to Bob)

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18 Responses to Is Following More Important Than Leading?

  1. Scott Leatherman July 25, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    I think a great example of the cost of leadership is cycling events like the Tour de France. Rarely is it the early break out leaders who win the stages–the massive peloton almost always catches them. It is the followers, of the leaders, who can attack at the most strategic time; leveraging the power of the masses to fuel their efforts.

  2. Carmen O'Shea July 25, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    I enjoyed this video too Jonathan and remember thinking it’s a good lesson for leaders to take to heart.

    Another recent HBR opinion on the topic of leadership surprised me as well. In his blog post The Six Common Misperceptions about Teamwork, J. Richard Hackman counters the popular idea that success or failure of a team hinges primarily on the leader. His research suggests that the leader’s style & coaching account for only about 10% of the variation in a team’s performance. Condition-creating accounts for about 60%, and the quality of the team launch accounts for another 30%.

    Pretty humbling for all leaders out there – you need followers and even then you may not really matter all that much!

  3. Mark Ciabattari July 25, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    I found your statement quite provoking — and timely: As a leader, you have to be willing to dance by yourself for a long time. You have to stick to your mission. So make sure your mission is one that you enjoy and believe in.

    I wonder if AT&T (Agency – BBDO, NY) had that in mind they were developing their famous (infamous) Flashmob commercial:

    The concept of “Courageous Followership” recognizes that to be effective at almost every level of an organization, individuals need to play both the leader and follower role adeptly. Ira Chaleff has an interesting website that describes the impact and importance of the Courageous Followers — for those willing to Follow this link:

    • Jonathan August 2, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

      Thanks for the link to Ira’s site. I hadn’t seen it before. It does indeed take courage to follow.

  4. Gary Cokins July 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm #


    Your colleague Bob McGlynn shared this with me. Your blog and the video echoes your and my discussions (despite our employers being competitors) that the barriers slowing the adoption rate of analytics, enterprise performance management, and other solutions are no longer technical but rather social (e.g., resistance to change).

    I love your opening remarks that there has been so much written about leadership, yet there seems to be a shortage. Maybe there is no formula (although the other comments point out some good research).

    My observation is that although executive sponsorship for initiatives is good to have, too often it is not there due to fire-fighting and office politics. I believe it is “champions” — like the first dancer and his follower — who have that passion and ‘fire in the belly’ that frequently create the momentum to get buy-in for perrformance improvement initiatives.

    We all need to get better at change management. And few if any of us were trained in it !

    Keep in touch.


    Gary Cokins, SAS

    • Jonathan August 2, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

      Gary, good to hear from you. I’ve often wondered if executive sponsorship is overrated as few initiatives can be mandated from the top. For a while, I have believed that performance management cannot be acomplished top down or bottom up, but rather middle out. Champions, as you call them, with messianic zeal.

  5. Mo Ghanem July 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    My opinion is that leading and following are equally important. You have to be a good follower before you can become a good leader. And you need to be a leader to become an effective follower

  6. John D'Albis July 29, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    I would have liked to have been the first (follower) to comment on this… A very enjoyable post, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing. Especially the 2nd video that shows the additional perspective. I’m wondering if the first nut hadn’t done it for so long (if the follower joined in too soon) – if it would have had the same result. I’m guessing some folks must have commented on the first “nut” before the 1st follower began (maybe to themselves.) Having noticed the “nut”, it becomes more interesting for it to evolve into a movement..? Maybe persistence is not a quality, but an ingredient.

    • Jonathan August 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

      John, this is intriguing. Perhaps “rapid following” is not a good indicator of creating a movement. Maybe being iconoclastic for a while and being noticed as different helps with later adoption. That might support the old maxim “There are none so righteous as the newly converted.”

  7. Anthony August 3, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    A key lesson is also that there was no “one-upmanship” exhibited. Neither the leader nor followers joined in order to stand out – individuals joined to be part of a good thing.

  8. Yuecel August 30, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    This is a great discussion. I just don’t agree with the statement that “we can’t be all leaders”. Being a leader doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t or shouldn’t follow others at the same time. For an organization to be at its best, it needs leadership on all levels and in all directions.

    In the end leadership is about vision, creativity, authenticity, dedication, courage, fairness, respect and concern for followers, understanding of followers, creating team identity and coherence, setting high standards, encouraging innovation and optimism, protection from politics and distraction, blame-control, feedback on individual and team strengths and weaknesses, taking ethical decisions, being a good representative of the team, balance (long-term/short-term; inside/outside team or organization). So I believe we can be all leaders and followers at the same time.

    I agree that discussions/literature on leadership is confusing. I felt the same way until I was introduced to the “Six Domains of Leadership” by Duke Professor Allan Lind from the Fuqua School of Business. I would highly recommend his paper on this topic.

    • Jonathan August 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

      Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so simplistic as “we can’t all be leaders”. Perhaps I should have added “all of the time”. Most people associate leading with being in front, setting the agenda, and showing the way. Over simplified for sure but probably the answer you’d get if you asked people.

      At times, the best solution is to follow someone else’s lead. And some times you want people to follow your lead. So, yes, we can all be both leaders and followers.

      • John Beisty August 31, 2011 at 11:30 am #

        This is an iteresting point inthe thread. My favorite part of this is the concept that a leaders needs to accept first followers as equals to start a movement. so part of leadership is being unique, finding a unique voice. To attract followers, good leaders then dont “act” the way we are always taught – be stern, be decisive. sometimes that works but to start a real movement you need inspiration, not fear.

        The lesson for me is to find fast followers and embrace them early – trust them with your unique vision and let them make it their own. they in turn, create the movement.

        Very cool thread – thanks.

  9. Yuecel August 31, 2011 at 10:38 pm #


    Thanks. I fully agree with “all of the time”. I would go further and ask the following question. Can we be actually good leaders without possessing the ability to follow others? My answer is “probably not”.

    John: Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing. I would like to expand your last paragraph: “… they in turn, create the movement. We then “support” the followers by protecting them from politics and distraction, and giving constructive feedback.

    I believe the “supportive leadership” is extremely important. Sometimes we see leaders who inspire others to do something but then are not there during the implementation of the change. So being only an “instant” inspirational leader is not really useful if the leader is not capable of demonstrating supportive leadership. We can even go further and say that inspirational leadership won’t work at all if the leader is not trusted and credible. And supportive leadership will also not work if we don’t know the context/environment where the movement and change is happening. Great leadership is really more than being visionary and showing the direction. It requires a full range of skills not just only one or other…

  10. Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Great idea, nice video, very simple and direct.
    Thanks for landing this idea!

  11. Malcolm Ryder March 30, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

    Dancing by yourself for a long time… Now there’s a vivid image! I think the simplicity of “joining the first” easily resists being confused with anything else, and what is emotionally compelling is the thought that the “first” person is doing something unusual for the time or place, making a statement that it is okay in this circumstance to do what they are showing. What’s more interesting is that followers don’t all necessarily join for the same reason. From time to time or person to person, some are relieved to be validated; some are curiously excited; some are experimenting; some are “docking”… these things change the experience of leadership by presenting variable blends of requirements, and naturally this means that success as a leader depends on being able to recognize why your followers are following…


  1. Interesting stuff from July 30th through August 3rd at achurch & associates - August 6, 2011

    […] Is Following More Important Than Leading? – An alternative take on leadership – maybe it’s the first FOLLOWER that is important, not the idiot dancing   […]

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