In praise of courageous followers

Few acts are more vital to our planet, our businesses and our future than who we choose to place our trust in. Making that choice with a clear head and an open heart requires courage. So how do we choose who we are going to follow? And how do we keep fear out of the equation?

Are we living through a revolution? It’s a serious question! From Nigel Farage urging the Brits to leave the European Union, to Donald Trump defying all poll predictions these are wild and fascinating times in the world of ‘leadership’. In Europe and the US people are throwing their hats in with unconventional leaders, and turning their back on ‘mainstream’ politics. What does it tell us about courage, and fear?

 

The world is crying out to trust

Whether you’re talking to a Trump or Farage supporter, you’ll probably hear something like: “He’s the ‘real thing’”, “he tells it like it is”, “he’s his own man”. With global warming, terrorism and shifting employment patterns, for many these are terrifying times. And when we are afraid most of us yearn for someone we can trust. Someone we feel is “authentic”. So, not coincidentally, successful leaders are almost always perceived as “authentic”.

 

Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder

But what is “authenticity”? As many great leaders know – authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Authenticity is not just what “we are”, it is what other people see in us. No one is “authentic” on their own. Authenticity needs to be acknowledged by others. As the people who ultimately decide who is “authentic” then – followers have enormous power and responsibility. This can be a frightening prospect.

 

If we follow out of fear: What happens then?

On Friday 25 June 2016 thousands of British citizens woke up fearful. Full of a deep regret. The day before, against almost all pollsters’ predictions, Brittan voted to leave the European Union. Voters crowded the airwaves: “It was just a protest vote! I never thought it would make a difference!”, “I was angry, I didn’t really think!”, “I voted leave because I thought everyone else would vote stay.”

 Whatever the politics of these decisions, beneath the rationalizations, I could sense fear – a fear of feeling ignored and insignificant (“I voted leave because I thought everyone else would vote stay”). And underneath that an even deeper fear – a fear of our own responsibility.

Whether leaders or followers – for all of us courage begins with accepting that we can change things. We have that power – and so that responsibility. No matter how much easier it might be for us to deny this – we can and do change things every single day. Every moment of our lives is a choice.

 

Followers can lead the way

We need to take that power seriously. We need to relish it, believe it, feel it as a joy not a duty. It takes just as much courage and passion to follow as it does to lead. And the results, when done courageously, are as powerful: Think of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi – they changed the world permanently. Their courage has continued to inspire generations. But neither of them would have achieved much without courageous followers. The energy and faith of people who have chosen to follow a leader with their whole heart is behind many of humanity’s greatest achievements.

In the private sphere we spend untold time choosing a partner. Yet when queuing up at a polling station many of us ‘go with our gut’, and fail to reflect on what we are really feeling.

  • What am I basing my choice of leader on here: What I’m most afraid of or what I most want?
  • What is this leader basing their leadership on: Their own ambitions or a better world for all of us?
  • What am I, as a follower, choosing to see – and not see – here?
  • Am I following this leader because of their long-term vision and plan or because I feel they will protect me from short-term fears I’m afraid of?
  • If I were to put aside my fears here – who would I really trust – and what do I really want? Maybe have something like this instead…?: If I were to put aside my fears – what is it I deep down really want to see long-term – and who is most likely to work for that?

As courageous followers we need to see further than our own fears. We need to somehow reach our subconscious fears and ask ourselves honestly whether these might be influencing our choice. The world is a big place and a long-term project. Our choice will directly influence its course.

Although we’re seldom consciously aware of it we have huge power as followers. At any moment we can withdraw our trust. And where there are no followers – well, there is no leader. Relish that power. Embrace that responsibility. Courageous followers realize that in many ways they are the true leaders. They dare to believe that their views, their faith, their trust – count.

We don’t just choose our leaders – we create them. So let’s do it courageously.

Courageous leaders change the world – together with courageous followers.