There is much written and taught on the topic of leadership.  While the most often-cited examples of influential leaders are those who run large organizations or hold positions of authority, we are inspired when we hear stories of those who have emerged as powerful leaders from unexpected places having no obvious resources or credentials to propel them.

The true indicator of all leadership is “followship”.  If you are a leader, others are following you.  If no one is following or being influenced by you, you are not a leader regardless of your position, title, or place in society.

Malala Biography

One of the greatest recent stories of influence and followship emerging unconventionally is the young life of Malala Yousafzai.  Listening to her autobiography with my 12 year-old daughter in recent weeks, I have been amazed at the amount of influence this 18 year-old Pakistani activist has wielded for the cause of female education.  In 2014 she became the youngest-ever recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, and even before an assassination attempt on her life in 2012, she had garnered a huge following for her efforts at making known the suppression of young girls’ educational opportunities in many parts of the world.

Malala had followship long before she was recognized as a leader.  You can probably point to some key people in your life who have led and influenced you profoundly without positional authority or an overtly-stated mission to do so.  Followship is earned, not endowed.  If this is true, then how do we earn it?

I want to follow you (1) if I understand and identify with where you want me to go, and (2) only when I conclude you are credible and worthy of my trust.  Stated another way, influential leaders must (1) articulate vision or direction, and (2) demonstrate aptitude or expertise, along with actions, in support of that vision or direction.  If I perceive your behavior to be inconsistent with where you are asking me to follow you, the deal is off – I’m not following.

To summarize, then, followship is a required indicator of leadership, and leadership is all about the person, not the position.  The leader may garner influence through touchy-feely factors such as demeanor, charisma, and enthusiasm.  But a large part of becoming an influential leader involves much less sensational factors, such as simply following through on what you say you are going to do.  Credibility and trust are most often built by consistent performance over long periods of time.  This doesn’t make for riveting leadership writings, but it is how many leaders have achieved great things through groups of passionate, devoted followers.

An important point for all of us:  we may not possess personality traits typically ascribed to great leaders, but all of us can influence and lead by being clear about where we are going and ensuring that our priorities and our actions are consistent with our destination.  If we do, others will likely follow.


Larry May



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