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Quotable: On the interchangeability of Leaders and Followers

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“There goes the mob, and I must follow them,  for I am their leader”Comte de Mirabeau

What might emerge from the riots in France and the UK over the economic crisis?   (read about it)

Some observations from  Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (Harvard Kennedy School of Government)

In times of social crisis, such as war or economic depression, temporarily overwhelmed followers may hand over power to leaders that they later find difficult to retrieve.  Hitler came to power by elections in Germany in 1933, and then used coercion to consolidate his power.  But he also used the soft power of attraction, constructing narratives that turned Jews into scapegoats, glorified the past, and promised a thousand-year Reich as a vision of the future.  Followers also helped to create Hitler.  As Albert Speer put it, “Of course Goebbels and Hitler know how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audience; but in a deeper sense they derived their whole existence from the audience.  Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors.  The mob determined the theme.”

One can think of Hitler’s followers in terms of concentric circles, with true believers like Goebbels, Goering, and Speer as an inner core; they are followed by a next circle of “good soldiers” like the Hamburg Reserve Police Battalion 101, who willingly executed Jews and Poles out of “crushing conformity;” an outer circle of complicit bystanders who knowingly acquiesced; and a further circle of passive bystanders who made no effort to know what was behind the myths and propaganda. Beyond them were those who refused to follow and resisted, many of whom were destroyed or coerced into silence.

Some discussions of leadership treat followers as obedient sheep. Followers can be defined by their position as subordinates or by their behavior of going along with leaders’ wishes.  But subordinates do not always go along fully with leaders’ wishes.  Leadership, like power, is a relationship, and followers also have power both to resist and to lead.  Followers empower leaders as well as vice versa.  This has led some leadership analysts like Ronald Heifetz to avoid using the word followers and refer to the others in a power relationship as “citizens” or “constituents.”

Heifetz is correct that too simple a view of followers can produce misunderstanding. In modern life, most people wind up being both leaders and followers, and the categories can become quite fluid. Our behavior as followers changes as our objectives change. If I trust your judgment in music more than my own, I may follow your lead on which concert we attend (even though you may be formally my subordinate in position). But if I am an expert on fishing, you may follow my lead on where we fish regardless of our formal positions or the fact that I followed your lead on concerts yesterday.

Whatever they are called, there are no leaders without followers, and followers often initiate group activities.  In the possibly apocryphal words of the French revolutionary Comte de Mirabeau, “There goes the mob, and I must follow them, for I am their leader.”   More seriously, good leaders commonly intuit where their “followers” are trending and adjust accordingly.  Followers often have the power to help lead a group. After his New Deal slowed down in the mid 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt reinitiated his legislative programs in response to pressures from new political and social movements in the country. We very often discover that in many groups and organizations, leaders and followers are interchangeable in different situations, and both goals and initiatives can originate among followers.

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Written by frrl

October 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm

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