In Support of Followers
There is a huge stigma attached to the idea of being a ‘follower’. We hear follower and instantly think of sheep. A follower is blind. Someone who does what is told, someone who accepts without question. There is such a stigma that even when people don’t consider themselves leaders, they will still refuse to think of themselves as followers.
So I would like to offer a different dichotomy. Instead of thinking of Leaders and Followers, we should think of Leaders and Supporters. Being a supporter is just as virtuous as being a leader.
The Leader Bias
There is a huge bias towards people wanting to be, and encouraging others to be leaders. Being a leader is virtuous. Being a follower is bad. If you are a follower you are somehow not as good of a human as a leader. You should always strive to be the leader because that is the best position. This it is an incredibly irresponsible bias to have for three main reasons.
1. It is not wrong to be a follower.
A majority of people are followers in some capacity. When we glorify leaders as being inherently better, we are putting down this majority. We are telling them that they are less virtuous humans.
Just by the nature of how our society is constructed, everyone has some sort of establishment to answer to, be it work, religion, or law. Just by having a job most people will be in a position for much of their lives where they are expected to follow directives that they would otherwise not follow. For example waking up early in the morning to get ready for the day is not something that many people would do if they did not have to be at work at a certain time in the morning.
Thinking of leaders as inherently better humans puts down a majority of people. This way of thinking promotes job dissatisfaction and low self-esteem and self-worth. People should be allowed, if not encouraged to feel proud of their position, no matter where on the hierarchy they land. Not because they are ‘settling’ for what they have, not because they shouldn’t try to make more money or have more influence. But because their current position is in no way less important, or less virtuous than any other position. They have no reason to feel bad about where they currently are.
2. It is not wrong to be bad at leadership. Nor is it wrong to not want leadership.
Believing that being a leader is more virtuous is indiscriminate in who we encourage to be leaders. We are making leadership virtuous in and of itself without taking into account the necessary virtues that create a good leader.
Some people are bad leaders. Some people are just not fit for leadership roles. This is evidenced in history with the myriad of evil dictators and failed leaders. Making leadership virtuous in and of itself encourages even these people who are not fit to be leaders. If they believe that they will be ‘better humans’ by being leaders, if they believe that society thinks leaders are better, they will try to become leaders, regardless of whether or not they are fit.
Being unfit to be a leader does not make someone less of a human being. Not being able to lead is simply a skill that many people do not have. It is like saying not having the skill to draw makes you less of a person. It is simply untrue. Yes, years of practice will make you a better leader, but so will years of practice of drawing. And yet, people are content not to know how to draw. People are satisfied without that skill, and no one thinks less of them for it. So too should we think of people without the skill to lead. We should not think less of them for not having acquired the skill.
Instead of indiscriminately praising the virtue of leadership, people should be praised for finding a position in the hierarchy that suits them and their temperament best.
3. It is not wrong to support a leader.
In my view, this is the most important reason the leader bias is hurtful. When we put down followers, we make it inherently less virtuous to support leaders. Some leaders are worthy of our support. Supporting some leaders can lead to real, good, everlasting change.
But the power of leaders comes from their followers. A leader cannot lead if they do not have people to follow them. The truly great people in our world need followers to make their visions come to fruition. We are currently not encouraging people to find those truly great leaders and support them. We instead promote a culture of every man for himself, everyone is their own leader. And little support takes place.
It is not wrong to recognize someone as your leader. Even if you see yourself as a leader, following someone else does not in any way belittle your position. Especially if you follow that person because you believe in them.
Supporters not Sheep
Being a follower can be very very morally dangerous. We have many examples in history of horrible things happening simply because large groups of people followed blindly. Or followed someone they thought had good intentions. This is why people are hesitant to encourage followers. But like bad leaders and good leaders, there are good followers and bad followers.
The caveat to being a good follower is the same caveat as being a leader. You must be responsible. Below are three main qualities that differentiate good followers, or supporters, from bad followers, or sheep.
1. Good followers choose their leaders
Good followers do not follow someone just because they are trying to lead them. Good followers do not accept hierarchies put before them simply because those hierarchies already exist. One must be responsible in who and how they follow. One must actively choose.
Following someone is not about accepting their authority. Following someone is choosing a champion that embodies virtues you believe are worthy, and trusting their judgement in reaching those virtues. Even if you do not share those virtues, a good follower can still support them by finding a leader, a champion who embodies them.
2. Good followers do not blindly follow.
Obeying orders simply because they come from a leader is not the action of a good follower. A good follower will recognize when the actions they are being asked to perform are not in line with the virtues that they see in their leader.
Yes, followers need to have a certain level of trust in their leaders. Especially if one does not share the same virtues of their leader. Sometimes, one may not agree with the actions of their leader, but you must trust that their actions are in line with the virtues that you support.
That being said, a good follower scrutinizes the decisions of their leaders. They check if the actions that are being asked of them are really for the best. They do not do things simply because their leader asked it of them. They do things because their leader lead them to the wisdom of a specific action.
3. Good followers are active. Not passive.
To be a good follower one must believe in what the leader is trying to accomplish and do everything in their power to support their leader in accomplishing that goal. A good follower is a supporter. Good followers should help to steer the leader towards good decisions. For that to happen, followers must be active in their support. They cannot just passively obey and do nothing else.
A good follower does not accept when their leader is making poor decisions. They take action. They inform their leader of the error of their ways, giving them the chance to change their decisions based on that information. A good follower helps their leader to make the best decisions possible.
A good follower does not leave everything up to their leader. They will not wait for their leader to tell them what to do. They will make their own decisions that help to support the leader.
A good follower is not look away and turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of their leader. They encourage their leader to change, and if they do not, they withdraw their support. When a leader has failed to live up to the expectations of the follower, the good follower does not shrug and say, oh well. A good follower lets their leader know that they do not support their actions when they are wrong.
Examples of Good Followers
Below are some fantastic characters who are followers of people arguably less cool/good than they are. These characters have many qualities that would make them wonderful leaders in their own right. However, they choose to support someone else. They see something in their employer, captain, king, or friend that is worthy of their support. They are none of them shy of letting their leader know when they are wrong, or withdrawing their support when their leader proves unworthy.
The fact that we hold these characters in such high esteem is evidence of the virtues of being a follower and supporter. One does not have to be the main character or the leader to be an amazing and virtuous human being worthy of admiration and praise.