Horton, one of Dr. Seuss’ famous characters, is an elephant. Due to his very large ears, he is the only one in the jungle capable of hearing the smallest of sounds, coming from the smallest of people who happen to be living inside a speck of dust. Horton accurately depicts the conundrum we all face with leadership. Much is written, documented and truly believed to be seen on the topic but in the end it is “alluring, elusive and frustrating.” We know it when we see it, but to actually convince others of a path creates similar turmoil to what Horton faced convincing the Wickersham Brothers that the Whos’ do indeed exist: ridicule, taunts and disbelief.
Yet, whether it is ego or not, many of us want to become leaders. Now I may be playing with semantics but I say enough on leadership! Let’s just follow by helping people work together. Wal-Mart kingpin, Sam Walton once quipped that “Outstanding leaders go out of the way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” An argument may be made that Walton’s comment is self serving in that he is leveraging those around him for personal economic gain. To me, it shows that not everyone can be a leader and that followers are key elements to organizational change and success.
It is probably fair to say that organizations have more followers than leaders. As such, if we are to hone in on a potential true handicap within organizations, ineffective followers may be more an impediment and probable, than ineffectual leaders. We have all heard the saying that too many cooks in the kitchen ruin the stew. All of us can not be the leader but that does not diminish our contribution. Like the Far Side Carton depicted above Robert Kelley, in his article “In Praise of Followers”, gives us some indication of the emancipation we may feel when realizing that “we’re (they’re) a follower, too.” Kelley elaborates on four qualities imperative to good fellowship. Succinctly stated, Kelley believes good follower’s traits to be:
- The ability to manage themselves well. Not only able to think for themselves, they work well independently and with little supervision.
- Good followers are steadfast in a principle outside themselves. This principle may take the form of a cause, a product, a work team, an organization or an idea.
- A commitment to build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact. They master their skills so they may contribute in an effective manner to the organization as a whole. To accomplish this they hold higher performance standards than that demanded by their job or work team.
- Lastly, effective followers are courageous, honest, and credible. Individuals of high ethical standards they know how to give credit when credit is due and are not afraid to own up to their mistakes. Simple put they are to be counted on!
It appears that the attributes of followers are very similar to characteristics required of leaders! So follow Horton’s advice and encourage the followers:
Don’t give up! I believe in you all
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!
Broadwell, M. M., “Why Command and Control Won’t Go Away,” Training September 1995, pp. 63 – 68.
Deal, T. & Kennedy, A. “Culture: A New Look Through Old Lenses,” Journal; of Applied Behavioral Science, November 1983, p. 501.
Kelley, Robert E. “In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review. November December 1988, Vol. 66, No. 6, pp. 142-148.
Seuss, T. (1954). Horton Hears a Who. Random House Books for Young Readers: New York.