“The test of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” ~James Buchanan

A leader is wantedBack in the day I read every book I could get my hands on about leadership. I wanted to see studies and data. I want formulas and strategies. I trusted all these Ph.D.’s and their teams of undergrads and you know what? They let me down.

It’s not that they didn’t do their research diligently and rigorously. It’s not that they weren’t decent writers. The problem was that for the most part they weren’t leaders themselves. Sure, they were erudite about the topic. (That means they knew their stuff.) But they knew about it in the way that a male gynecologist knows about women. Any 18 year old female with no formal training knows more about being a woman than our good doctor. My leadership researchers could only take me so far.

The Bookworm Heads Out Into The World

So I fixed my gaze outward and looked for actual leaders in the world. They weren’t that hard to find. We actually have quite a few at any given time and we have lots of information recorded about past leaders spanning the last 3,000 years.

Here’s what I found out: A leader is a person in the lead.

That’s it. You don’t find leaders by looking for a mob of followers and then figuring out who is in charge. That person is often just a wrangler or a caretaker. Sometimes they are even an outright fraud. Politics has an embarrassment of riches in this area.

Aside from being a leader, a leader does leading too. That doing may be in actions. But it may also be in words or in thoughts and concepts. They are in their realm of leadership deep and it moves them to act.

What About Followers?

In a race, the people behind the leader are following but they aren’t followers. It turns out that this is often the context for any kind of leader. Nominal followers aren’t “behind him” in the sense that they are supporting him, they are just bringing up the rear.

Leaders may have followers but they don’t need followers. They are not responding to popularity or support. They have another motivation.

But…many leaders do have actual followers after all.

Where The Magic Happens

Why would anyone be a true follower of anyone else? Because someone has developed a mission, and that mission speaks to the likely followers.

If you want to be a leader, this is the one thing you must do. You must develop a mission. You can’t lead without a mission. But don’t people become leaders in others ways? No. These are just people who seem like leaders if you don’t look too close:

  • Being the boss does not make you a leader.
  • Neither does being more experienced.
  • Having money doesn’t do it.
  • Education doesn’t tip the scales either. (See paragraphs 1 and 2.)

No, people will not follow you for any of those reasons for very long.

Furthermore, people won’t follow you because you are you. Let’s face it, you won’t even follow you because you are you. You will develop doubts at the very least and get paranoid at the worst. You need something to have confidence in, and so do others.

The Mission and Mission Control

A mission, that thing that is bigger than you, is just the ticket. A mission can exceed your time and space. It can live beyond your personal resources. It can grow with your help or without it. If you are a leader, it grows by orders of magnitude beyond the mere you but welcomingly allows you to come along for the adventure.

A leader is not in charge of his mission. He is more its appointed guardian. The authority of that appointment is not guaranteed forever either. You have to continue to prove worthy of it. For the true leader that is no struggle. It is a selfless love that energizes them. They will stay the leader because it feels so right.

You cannot be a leader just to be a leader. You have to care about something first. That was my problem back there with my books. I wanted to be in charge of something but I had no “something” that stirred the passion in me to lead. I did a lot of things. You might even call them accomplishments. But leadership evaded me until I found my mission.

My mission is simply this: To open the eyes of small business owners everywhere to their power to transform the world.

Entrepreneurship has turned some kind of corner. It is not just about making money anymore. Sure, making money remains a key component. But there is now a purpose to making it that exceeds just making somebody rich.

“You don’t need followers to be a leader.” click to tweet

Whether it’s Bill Gates giving away billions of dollars to eradicate polio and encouragingly compelling other billionaire people and companies to join him, or Kiva giving $100 microloans to fund small businesses in developing nations, it is a new world. So follow them and follow me. Or better yet, develop your own mission and lead. Perhaps then we can follow you.

What mission are you leading? Tell us about it by commenting below.

Photo credit: la ciudad visible

You Don’t Need Followers to Be a Leader
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6 thoughts on “You Don’t Need Followers to Be a Leader

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    Dear Kenneth,

    Wow! This is one of the most beautiful pieces that I have ever read on leadership. I found it while researching a sermon for this Sunday on the leadership of Jesus and why it cannot be reduced to any particular style or model. You’ve captured the heart of what I have been trying to express. From my perspective, what you are describing here is the transforming gift of a genuine spiritual purpose, a centre that organizes everything else in your life in relation to it.

    Thank You,

    Rishi Sativihari
    The Parish of St. James in St. Marys (Ontario)

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    Yes, I was drawn instantly by the title of this post. It popped up while I was searching for the origin of the quote “A leader without followers is just a man out for a walk.” (Maybe attributed to Mark Twain?). I ruefully claim that quote to be true on a daily basis.
    Your premise is refreshing and reassuring.
    I still find myself “out for a walk” most of the time just waving my hands and ranting as I endlessly review and refine My Mission.
    And yes, I have a mission. Truly, it’s the other way around. It has me! It pulses within me at every breath and distracts me from my more immediate duties (as it is now). It is far bigger than me and is constantly compelling. I have friends who listen. And listen. They are kind but I fear I’ll burn through them if I posit ad infinitum.
    So, Mr. Blog, now what? … as if you might know…

    (And thank you so much for efforts and encouragement.)

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      Henceforth, I shall be known as Mr. Blog. 🙂

      Your friends are not in the truest sense “listening”. If they were, they would be as energized as you. It is not possible for you to “burn through” your real listeners. So if I were to answer your “What now?” question, it would be to say, “Go find your listeners.”

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    I do have a mission but I’m not going to talk about that for now; but, actually I have a question: – How to stir courage in people who were worn out by fear for generations to actually get up and change their reality positively?!

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      You hit it on the head when you used the word “courage”. The past does not make the future. It does not even make the present. The present makes the future and we control what we think about the present. Taking the courage to “seize the day” is what makes a future with no resemblance to the past. Stirring courage in others is done by proclaiming their freedom from the past. You may have to make this proclamation over and over. So do your part. Then they must pick up the courage you offer. That is the part they play. That is where freedom lies.

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