Why our world needs leaders and followers—and where you fit in
Story by Nicole Harris
Imagine you’re sitting in your school’s auditorium for a school-wide rally. The rally’s main speaker poses a question: “Do you believe you’re a leader?” If your answer is “yes,” the speaker says, “Raise your hand.”
What would you do? Raise your hand immediately? Look around to see if your friends were raising theirs? Or keep your hand at your side?
Luckily, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. The word “leader” has so many definitions that sometimes it’s confusing. What really makes someone a leader?
In “Everyday Leadership,” a TED Talk by Drew Dudley, a leader isn’t necessarily someone who does something heroic. Dudley tells a story about how handing out lollipops to incoming freshmen spiraled into making others’ lives better.
"It can be frightening to think that we can matter that much to other people, because as long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership something beyond us, as long as we make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it every day from ourselves and from each other."
You don’t have to change the world overnight to call yourself a leader. It’s the little things that add up—volunteering at a soup kitchen, raking your neighbor’s leaves or even handing out lollipops.
Think more small-picture about being a leader, and you’ll slowly start to make an impact on the big picture. Leave a quarter in the vending machine for the next person. Hold a door open for someone. Hand out balloons to little kids. You may not be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates, but you’ll make someone’s day a little bit brighter—and that’s a big deal.
The leader’s posse
Even if you still don’t consider yourself a leader, that’s OK. The world needs a few followers too. A leader with no followers is like a global movement without momentum. Without followers, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have talked to an empty National Mall about his dreams. Without followers, names like Gandhi and Lincoln wouldn’t mean what they do to us today.
What can make being a follower great? In “How to Start a Movement,” speaker Derek Sivers says “it’s actually the first follower that turns the lone nut into a leader.” Take a flash mob, for example. Without others to follow the leader’s dance moves, he or she might just look crazy dancing in the middle of a mall or street. Sivers says it takes a lot of courage to be the first follower, and often the first few followers are unsung heroes.
Admitting you’re a follower, even if that means you are some great unsung hero, is still no easy task. Take “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost’s famous poem. The end of the often-quoted poem goes like this:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
But it’s within the heart of the poem where Frost admits the truth. He comes upon two paths that had been traveled about the same number of times. He waits a day to see if anything changes, but nothing does. Knowing he may never return to this place again, he tells himself if anyone asks why he chose the path he did, he’ll tell them he took the one less traveled.
At the end of the poem, you realize Frost is actually just afraid to admit he’s acting as a follower. He has a hard time accepting he isn’t the first to embark on some great new adventure, because—in reality—many before him had done the same.
So, which are you: a leader or a follower? The good news is you don’t have to choose. Being a leader doesn’t mean you’ll lead every day. And being a follower doesn’t mean you’ll never step up to the plate.
In the meantime, do what many of the greats before you have done: Volunteer every way you know how. Work at a soup kitchen or animal shelter, tutor children, pick up trash around a park or pass out water on a hot summer day. You might not start a social movement in your lifetime, and that’s OK. If you keep up with random acts of kindness, one day you’re going to truly make an impact on someone’s life. And in that person’s eyes, you’ll be a leader in the most sincere way.
Bottom line: To truly make a difference in the world, you need to be both a leader and a follower. (They go together better than peanut butter and jelly!) The next time you aren’t chosen as team captain, president of your club or shift manager at your part-time job, take heart. You’re doing your part—and you’ll still have the chance to shine.