Leaders, Followers and Fancy Footwork


Do you aspire to leadership? Are you a leader?

Are you a follower? Do you hope to be a follower?

Leadership is highly valued in our society. Following–not so much. Just as we’d never set out to become a drug addict, we don’t set out in life to become followers. Is this right? Can we all be leaders? Should we all? Is there anything wrong with being a follower?

There are many ways we face this issue in our daily lives, though we may be unaware of it. Every time we relate to our spouse, our friends, parents, children, relatives, co-workers, bosses, employees, government, spiritual advisors, community members and workers, we consider issues and ideas about leading and following. We constantly assess an unspoken pecking order, noticing who is in charge, who knows or does best, who answers to whom, who makes the best decisions and has the best ideas. We also notice who isn’t in charge, who doesn’t take initiative, who isn’t living up to the job of leader.

What we do with this constant stream of information about leaders and followers varies from person to person. Some of us align ourselves with the ones we perceive as strong leaders. Maybe we do it to hone our developing leadership skills. Maybe we do it to find a comfortable place to avoid leadership. Some may align with the other followers, either to enjoy camaradarie with like-minded peers or to rise as their leader.  For whatever reason, we act out of preconceived and often subconscious ideas about what it means to be a leader and a follower.

Many people seem to think they should go into leadership because they enjoy telling others what to do, they think they can clearly see what others should do, they know they’re of the bossy sort, they don’t like being told what to do, or they are just plain lazy and want to direct others to work rather than do it themselves.

There seems to be a similar or paired strain of thought regarding followers. People seem to think followers are blind, mindless, gutless, weak mambies who, frankly, deserve to be taken advantage of since they don’t bother fending for themselves.

I beg to differ!  There are better reasons to lead, and there is strength in following.

To illustrate my point, let us personify the aforementioned poorly-motivated leader and call it a man (no gender bias intended)–a man named Omniscient Leader–and the follower a woman (again, no gender bias) whose name is, coincidentally, Blind Follower. Now we’ll take these stereotypes to a ballroom dance lesson for some fancy footwork.

Omniscient Leader takes ahold of Blind Follower and pushes her around the room. He struts through these gruff movements, barking orders as he leads, ‘Box step! Again! Now fifth position, underarm turn and box step!’ Blind Follower does her best to anticipate the next step, keep her balance and look smooth and graceful, but she doesn’t remember what those terms mean anyway, and under this pressure she falls backward, twists off her heel and stops the dance. Omniscient Leader quickly points out her error, and Blind Follower readily takes the blame.

The dance instructor has his work cut out with this couple. They likely won’t return for lesson two if he doesn’t split them up and start teaching them individually, with rule number one being, “Don’t teach each other how to dance!”

Contrast this scene with a professional dance couple.

Beyond Just Dance

Megan Wallace, my awesome dance instructor

The dance begins with a strong frame. The Leader’s body adjusts to offer his hand based on her particular body size and strength. He knows just where to cue her with the slightest pressure, applied at key points, timed so her body cannot help but glide where he leads. He watches her and feels her responses. His keen eye surveys the surroundings to guide her safely as they progress the dance around the room. He adjusts his dance to his perception of how well she is able to follow his lead on this particular dance, on this particular night, in this particular setting. His goal is her success, for the dance is only as good as the two achieve together. As a follower, she is no mambie. Her body is strong and poised. She holds her frame firmly and gives just enough resistance into his frame that she can adequately feel his lead without losing her balance. If she does not hold her frame securely, his leading touch may only move her arms–and her arms, flopping wildly, will then throw off her balance. Constantly aware of her own form, her core, every muscle active, each joint positioned appropriately to perform each step, she instantly reads his physical cues and adjusts her body to the next step. Like a musician who can name the song from the first note, her body knows the dance movements so well her muscles have their own memory. Together they glide across the floor, making the dance appear easy to the casual observer.

If you’ve ever tried it, you know it is anything but easy.

Neither are the roles of leader and follower in life. The effective leader is not bossy, lazy or all-knowing. Rather, he is perceptive, receptive, proactive and adaptive. He knows what he is doing and perceives his follower’s ability. Knowing future plans, he carefully observes his follower and the environment and makes adjustments on the spot to accommodate as needed.

Likewise, the follower is not weak, spineless or stupid. No, she is strong, centered and experienced. Aware of her strengths and well-practiced skills, she brings to her leader a force to be reckoned with. Bearing the same goal as her leader, she sees her part in attaining the goal equally important. She does not let him push her around, but instead offers equal counter-pressure to his lead, balancing his direction with her viewpoint. She willingly goes where he leads with graceful determination, with shared joy in the journey. She senses that he is fully invested in her success. They differ in perspective, attributes, abilities and roles, but function in a complementary manner. Together they achieve what neither could do alone.

These are characteristics of good leaders and faithful followers.

This is true in marriage, and it is true in the workforce. It is true in relationships of all sorts. It takes a lot of strength, preparation, respectful interaction and practice to pull off this kind of fancy footwork. Leading to express your bossy self, to have the higher place in the pecking order or to be the one who knows it all doesn’t lend itself to respectful interaction. Following to find the easy way out, to avoid conflict or risk doesn’t lend itself to strong counterforce bringing your best self to the mix. Fretting over who is in charge, who is better, who is to blame, who is the weakest link. . . these things are not going to help us reach our mutual destination or enjoy the journey. Recognizing our own and others’ strengths and abilities, bringing our best to bear, applying ourselves and keeping alert to cues from the environment and our mates to make necessary adjustments as we go. . . will.

Whether you’re a leader or a follower or, like most of us, some of each–depending on the relationship–regard yourself positively. Regard each member of your team positively. Recognize mutual goals and enjoy the journey together. Bring it all you’ve got, and let the dance begin!

©Joan T Warren


13 responses »

    • Wow, I am honored!! If I were to choose an award, to be influential would top the list!
      Yes, we do think alike! I just read your link and commented there.
      Oh, and thanks for your suggestion too, indeed, birth implies new! Never birthed an old blog. Will rectify pronto! 🙂


  1. Funny that you should be posting about this topic right now. I’ve recently been talking with Johnny about feeling stuck in a “follower” position. Especially in my “work”, I’ve felt a little bit “unimportant” only because I’m not in a “leader” position. These beliefs that we have to be leaders to be valued are just silly!!! In actuality, I’m not really in full “follower” mode either… and that has been frustrating.

    As a matter of fact, I think back over my life and remember being told that I was a natural born leader even back in grade school. But I don’t really see myself fulfilling that role very often. Mostly I end up being a “leaders helper” and not really knowing where I truly fit in.

    But your post helped me fill in the missing spots in my identity development.

    In a dance… there is more than just a leader and a follower. There is music. Right now my role is neither leader nor follower… I am like the music. Without music, the leader would have a hard time leading and the follower would have a harder time following. Music brings the two together and makes it all successful.

    I can live with that role. ♪♫


    • Wow, a very interesting thought! You and Barry Manilow (I am Music)! 😉
      I’m glad this post helped you find a sense of place. I look forward to hearing more from you about this. How do you see what you do as being music? Is it in the inspirational aspects of what you do? The rhythm, melody, flow?
      Knowing you, I must add that your leadership is developing. You may not even realize ways you are leading. Just the other day Randy noted that he follows me in many areas of our lives. I was surprised! I had to ask him which areas, why, and how. It was deeply rewarding to hear that from a man I respect so much, and increased my confidence in using my gifts and abilities.


    • Actually as soon as hit reply I realized I did it again! I referred to leadership as somehow more valuable than followship when I drew confidence from realizing ways I lead, and when I affirmed your developing leadership but didn’t affirm your followship skills. Hmmmmm. The roots go deep, don’t they? (:-/


  2. A very wise man told me (Happy Father’s Day), “Dance with all the girls, even those who you don’t want to dance with. I quickly found out that I could not dance but it made me feel good at the end of the night and hopefully I helped some people with their self esteem (not to mention my own feeling of worth). I used this philosophy with my career.

    As an alpha male I tried to involve everybody equally in projects that I managed. I also incorporated the philosophy that, “nobody drowns.” This means that we all work together and nobody gets fired or downgraded. This worked for about 98% of my workforce. The other 2% was a challenge and took up a lot of my time. We all had our strengths and weaknesses and I tried to hire those smarter then me who had great work ethics.

    A lesson I learned about the 2%. I was on a Process Action Team and in the beginning I believed that the person who we were diagramming was lazy and should be fired. When the work process was diagramed, it was discovered that the person was set to fail. By adding/deleting duties, this employee was able to meet minimum work standards.

    In my private life that consists of friends and relatives, I take the role of leader/follower. Sometimes people want to lead. I am OK with this when I agree with the path they wish to follow. The problem is sometimes I disagree with what they are doing. I don’t want to jump from a tall building so I have to reason with them to see things from a different point of view. When this doesn’t work we infrequently have to agree to disagree. Sometime I follow others and do something I have never done before or is out of my comfort zone. This works great when you get home at night and think of all the fun that you had doing an activity that you really did not want to do. I don’t believe that I will try anything once. We all have to establish personnel boundaries to keep us physically safe.

    As for the role of leader, I try to take all factors into account such as feelings, emotions, does it cause anybody harm and do others want to do what I want to do. I don’t like dysfunctional communication such as, when I ask the question, “What do you want to do” and I get the reply, “I don’t know, what do you want to do. In this scenario I usually voice a positive remark on what it is that I want to do while taking into account the above factors.

    So am I a leader or follower. The answer is yes to both. They all have a time and place in my life and I would not want to go through life being just a leader or a follower. For some, being a leader or a follower full-time might work for them. I can get into specific scenarios when a person is either a leader or a follower but that is for another day.


    • Al, very interesting points –all.

      I am keen to the dance advice, your father sounds like a very wise man! It confounds me to think that so many men don’t (or won’t) dance when it makes so much sense to dance! If only they knew that most women don’t much care if they look professional, we just like the interactive movement and music!

      I would have liked working in that “nobody drowns” system, great idea! I like your emphasis on smart and safe following. My point exactly, that in following a leader we are not supposed to do so blindly. Our input is essential to the leader’s ultimate decision. If we hold back what we think then we deny the leader the benefit of a fully informed decision. This, of course, is in my ideal world. In the real world, in many cases, people get fired for speaking their minds, or they fear they will, while the yes-men get the advances. This creates a vicious cycle, in which the leader makes ill-informed decisions and followers think to themselves, ‘I could have told her that!’, building more resentment, which leads to more holding back. . . and so on.

      Now you’ve got me thinking again about Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Did you read it?


      • I love the concepts of building self Vision and team learning. It has always been true for me that a group who shares the same vision and are stakeholders seem to do a better job and are more productive than those who feel that they have no say and no value in the organization. I value team learning as it makes people feel part of the organization.

        One of my favorite Presidents, Ronald Reagan, used a Russian Troika model to assist him in his decisions. Like a troika that is lead by three houses, he had a left, right and center positioned people as his advisors and on his Cabinet. This also works well in the workforce as long as you don’t have yes men and people afraid to voice their opinions.


  3. Very elegant description of effective teamwork from my lovely wife. I hope I do a reasonable job of fulfilling my role in our life, whichever role that is. 🙂


    • Thank you, babe, and yes, quite reasonable indeed. 😉 It is (almost) always a pleasure following your lead; you are strong and gentle at once. You think things through, you really listen, and you inspire. I had to add in the ‘almost’ because, after all, we are married! We see our failures and our triumphs and keep each other growing, don’t we?


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