Why Leadership Is Important and Why People Want to Be Followers

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I posted this recently in a leadership MOOC course. The question was, “Why do you think leadership is important?”

Here’s my response:

I believe leadership is important because if we examine history, no significant changes or advancement have occurred without some type of leadership. In the U.S., we can see how leaders have mobilized followers to accomplish amazing things.

George Washington → American Revolution
Martin Luther King, Jr. → Civil Rights Movement
Steve Jobs → Apple Computers (iPhone, iPad, iPod)

I like this definition of leadership as I believe it nicely explains WHY leadership is important:

“Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2013, p. 5).

To me, there can be no leader if there are no followers, and people will not follow you if you lack the ability to influence them to work toward a goal.

That said, I also like and agree with what Bass (1990) said, that there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are individuals who have tried to define this concept.

One person in the MOOC class said that he did not believe people want to be led by others (i.e., they want to be leaders, not followers). I responded with this post:

I respectfully disagree with the notion that people do not want to be followers. I contend three things (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012):

  1. Almost everyone is a follower in some capacity (supervisors report to managers, managers report to VPs, even CEOs have to report to the board of directors),
  2. The role of followers is just as important as leaders (although it is often overlooked), and
  3. Being a follower has benefits (that is, the benefits to being a follower sometimes outweigh the benefits of trying to be the leader).

Social Change: In the U.S., the Civil Rights movement serves as a good example of what can happen when followers take action to change the status quo (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012).

Military: We talk about great military leaders but the real wars and battles are fought by the best soldiers and armies (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012).

Sports: Yes, the Chicago Bulls had a great coach (leader) in Phil Jackson (who led them to 6 titles), but they also had Michael Jordan (who was both follower and leader) and Jordan had great teammates (Scottie Pippen, etc.) who followed and helped him.

Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

References

Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass & Stogdill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research & managerial applications (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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