One of the overlooked themes in my latest novel, Island No. 6, is the awful burden of leadership. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Those in positions of leadership, both in the novel and in real life, are regularly taxed with making unpopular decisions based on far-less-than-certain data and with wildly unpredictable results in the offing. Thankfully, there are still those men and women who bravely seek out the mantle of leadership despite this burden. In fact, I would argue that most of our current organizations do not suffer so much from a lack of leadership but from a lack of followership. Please, do not mistake my point, healthy debate is always positive, and we should never conflate dissent for disloyalty, but our current lack of trust in our leaders has been so eroded by tribalism and a general unwillingness to follow that consensus and progress have become almost impossible throughout a wide range of societal endeavors.
Books, seminars, courses, entire organizations devoted to teaching leadership skills are ubiquitous in modern America; however, I cannot think of one such forum dedicated to teaching and elevating the role of the follower. It has traditionally been, but increasingly wrongfully assumed, that the masses will naturally muster, fall in line, and willingly accept marching orders from their leaders without having received similar training in how to follow, but those were different days, and I wholly support everyone’s thinking for oneself and calling out authority whenever it acts in opposition to the best interests of the many. In our current milieu, however, too many people’s aversion to leadership appears to be their default position, and it has caused them to assume automatically that any initiative proposed by those in charge is not even worth one’s consideration. I’ve been known to speak out forcefully against authority myself, and I will continue to do so. At the same time, I am proud to consider myself a good soldier when final marching orders are given.
A significant contributor to this modern day problem is the devaluation we have placed on humility. To be a good follower requires one to humbly subordinate his/her own agenda, opinion, ideas, etc. to those in leadership positions. It means sacrificing individual goals and initiatives for the good of the many, and in this egocentric age in which we live, when it is so tempting and easy to broadcast personal thoughts far and wide through any number of social media platforms, selfless acquiescence to leadership is becoming increasingly rare. I cannot reiterate enough that I am NOT promoting blind obedience. I don’t give it, and I don’t expect it in my children or students. The trust necessary to be an effective leader must be earned, but it is also true that those who are to be governed must provide their elected, hired, or promoted leaders with the opportunity to earn that trust.
Just as a shark must continually swim to avoid sinking to the bottom, any organization needs to be constantly moving forward or it will lose its momentum and become stagnant and irrelevant. In order for such progress to occur, there has to come a point at which the debate ends, decisions for the good of the many are made, and the organization moves on to face new challenges. To that end, we must teach, encourage, and reward informed followership and celebrate those whose willingness ultimately to be led makes any group and all progress possible. A delicate balance it is between dissent and acquiescence, but all democratic institutions demand it be struck, for the far-less-attractive alternatives are a chaotic anarchy or a tyrannical autocracy.