It takes a follower to be a leader

Thinking of community leadership as more than the leading of a community, but rather the leadership exhibited throughout a community.

Often when people think of leadership we think of someone stepping forward for change. Leaders are people who use their voices to ignite a spark of inspiration in communities; who guide others in efforts towards a certain charge. Prominent leaders of U.S. history include elected officials and politicians like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Condoleezza Rice, but goes beyond to include individuals that inspire groups of people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rachel Carson and Robby Novak (also known as “Kid President”). The definition of the word “leadership” is changes for different people and in different situations. For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it,” where Professor Warren G. Bennis is quoted comparing leaders and managers, saying “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.”

The thing about leadership is that it really takes multiple people for one person to be considered a “leader.” Benjamin Franklin was a civic activist, an inventor and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, a House Representative and eventually the U.S. President who abolished slavery, among many other important accomplishments. Condoleezza Rice was the U.S.’s first African-American female Secretary of State where she pioneered the Transformational Diplomacy policy, helping establish democratic governments all over the world, and is now the Director of Stanford’s Global Center for Business and the Economy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister and humanitarian activist, leading the African-American Civil Rights Movement with nonviolent civil disobedience, later receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in combating racial inequality in the U.S. Rachel Carson was an aquatic biologist, conservationist and nature writer whose book, “Silent Spring,” changed the conversation around environmental concerns and the use of pesticides. Last but not least, Robby Novak is a 10-year-old actor who has utilized social media platforms such as YouTube to spread messages of positivity and kindness.

Question: What do all these people have in common?

Answer: They wouldn’t be considered the leaders we think of them as today if someone didn’t follow them.

Leadership isn’t just being the person with the charismatic personality and the big ideas. Leadership is also a characteristic attributed to those individuals who choose to follow the idea people. Derek Sivers shares his thoughts on this concept with a great TED talk. In it, he outlines the idea of the “first follower,” the individual who shows everyone else how to follow. It is important to acknowledge that this role is just as important, if not more important, than the idea maker, usually referred to as “The Leader.” Being the first follower takes courage and a strong sense of trust in either The Leader or The Leader’s idea. In regards to the first follower, Sivers says, “Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.” This is a leadership role we rarely acknowledge and yet it is so critical to the concept of communities coming together to create change.

In Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development, we have countless approaches, programs and events designed to support youth in their development as leaders, but we often forget to acknowledge the importance and value of youth who are first followers. Take time to acknowledge the roles of the group in the creation of community change. Help the young people in your clubs and communities see the value of having each other as a network of advocates for change. Let’s reframe the clout of “leadership” from a single individual to the myriad of perspectives, skills and ideas it takes to create a community of change-makers. “If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire,” says Sivers. Don’t let all your sparks fall to the wayside by only recognizing the flint.

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