While I was finishing my education back in the Pleistocene era, I got a job teaching at an international management school. I was happy, but also terrified: My 90-plus students were about ten minutes younger than I was and much more experienced in real-world business. There was simply no way I could lead these people to better managerial skills. So I chose another option: I decided to follow them. I found a shoe box, cut a slit in the top, and wrote FEEDBACK AND RECOMMENDATIONS on the side. Then I took the box to class.

"Your tuition pays my salary," I told my students. "I work for you. As your subordinate, I'll do the best I can, but as my leaders, you can help me do better." I asked them to write down any negative feedback they might have and slip their comments into the box anonymously (to avoid fear of being penalized). All I asked was that with every negative comment they also include a suggestion about how I could improve.

My colleagues were horrified by this approach. "You'll lose control of the classroom!" one of them said. "They'll destroy you!" I handled his advice just as I did my feedback-box suggestions: by presenting it to my students and asking what they thought. They pointed out that for a teacher—as for a manager or any other kind of leader—suppressing negative feedback alienates people and prohibits communication of the very information necessary to improve. We had a memorable discussion about the benefits to be found in following, and it went a little something like this.

Why Following Is Good for You

"All streams flow to the sea because it lies below them," wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. If you want to lead people, he goes on to say, you must be willing to follow them. This flies in the face of our society's general consensus, which holds that the world is a landscape of pyramids. Whether your pyramid is a family, a school, a company, or any other social structure, the goal is to get to the top and enjoy the power and privilege of leadership. Followership is often seen as the default role of losers, wimps, and also-rans.

If you love clawing your way up social pyramids, by all means, hang on to this view of reality. But if you're into things like, oh, I don't know, happy relationships and enjoyable work, you might want to note that many highly functional human systems are less like pyramids than like calm seas: Roles are as fluid as water, and the hierarchy of personal worth is flat, with every person valued equally. In systems like these, each person leads in situations where he or she is most capable, but just as willingly follows in others.

For example, you may be the legal head of your household, but when you're baffled by a social networking app, it's your teenager who leads you to clarity. You're technically in charge of your plumber and your accountant, but you probably follow their advice. Your circle of friends may look to one person to lead when they're choosing a restaurant and to another when they want fashion pointers. Being willing to follow, as well as to lead, is how we maximize our collective strengths.

When Not to Follow

All this talk of fluid leadership and humble following sounds just lovely—if you've never had a horrible boss, a domineering parent, or an abusive partner. These are the folks who love power pyramids, who never, ever follow anyone below them. They enjoy categorizing people as superiors (who get to lead, no matter what) and inferiors (who must follow, no matter what). They are willing to do anything they can to claim dominance. These are not people you should follow.

Economist Albert Hirschman wrote that when followers feel dissatisfied, they have two options: communicate discontent in the hope of creating change, or refuse to participate. Expressing our discontent and suggesting a better way—the option I gave my students with my feedback-box system—is definitely worth a try. If that doesn't work, we may have to disobey—in other words, leave that tyrant behind.


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