What Qualities Differentiate a Follower From a Leader

The BalanWhat Qualities Differentiate a Follower from a Leaderce

There are some great leaders out there. There are also some that are not-so-hot. At the same time, there are those who make excellent followers and others that are less-than-stellar in the following department. A poor “leader” is the one who leads others to ruin. A poor follower cannot or refuses to follow perfectly sensible instructions. A misled follower is the one who follows a poor leader to the point of ruin. Being a true leader means one does not betray the responsibility entrusted to them. Some potentially great leaders failed because they were betrayed by those they trusted. The world needs real leaders and competent followers and the balance this brings. What are some of the primary differences between a leader and a follower?

 A Leader Acts First

The leader displays initiative. He or she doesn’t need orders or instructions in order to act. Very often the leader is the first person who thought up the idea, or they took the reins from another and ran with it. The leader is the one issuing orders. It is interesting to note that the leader is not always in the spotlight. They may remain behind the scenes and a keep a low profile, but look a little closer and there will be no mistake as to who is in charge.

 A Follower Receives Orders

The follower is the one who gets ordered to do something. Can a follower demonstrate initiative and act without orders? Certainly, and such a follower may find themselves in a leadership position rather quickly. But if orders are given, as long as the orders are not destructive, the loyal follower will simply do the order and report back that it is done.

 A Leader Sees Ahead

A leader is looking into the future and planning accordingly. Very often the leader is the only one in the group with adequate foresight. This can come naturally or be the result of an elevated vantage point and being able to see the big picture. The direction of a leader sometimes baffles others, often due to the narrow view of the follower. A leader may or may not always explain theirself, but they are looking ahead and see what others do not.

A Follower is Not Blind

“Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do & die,

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.”

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from the poem “The Charge Of The Light Brigade”

Such are the words from the famous poem, often quoted in some form. Following orders is not a bad thing, but following them blindly can be dangerous for all concerned. A good follower should be able to see the big picture, at least as it concerns them. In a real team, a junior member should be able to voice disagreements to the leader, minimally through a standard channel. Real leaders don’t want robots. They want people who can think on their feet and who have sound judgment.

A Leader Has High Personal Output

A notable quality of many leaders is a high level of personal productivity. They simply do more. They are thus, able to lead by example and they won’t tell anyone to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves. They have personal knowledge in the area and cannot be fooled. They know their business. A leader who tells someone to do something dishonest so as to not be culpable is NOT a good leader. The level of honesty and integrity should get higher and higher the more one ascends the corporate ladder. This is unfortunately not always the case, but when it is, it is notable and admirable.

A Follower Specializes

A business or any organization is composed of specialists. In armies and navies they are even called specialists by actual title. A specialist is an expert in a specific area. A leader could be a specialist, but they also specialize in a skill called leadership. A skilled follower should be the “czar” of his or her zone of control. Ever walk into a mechanic’s shop or a chef’s kitchen and you just KNEW you were in the absolute domain of that mechanic or that chef? Even the leader knows when he has walked into such a space – there is mutual respect. Through specialization a team is built.

A Leader Has Vision

The word vision has been tossed about and has lost some of its meaning. It is most evident when the group is going through a rough period. Vision means having a clear idea of the future. Vision is wisdom, imagination and motivation all rolled into one. It means persistence on a given course despite the odds. There are a great many people who give up rather easily. A leader does not.

A Follower Supports the Leader

When the leader says, “Look to the vision! Don’t give up!” the loyal follower does exactly that. The trusted follower will not hear of the abandonment of the vision. Anyone who has been a leader knows the value of having such people working at your side. In the most dire of circumstances, when the leader and follower are working closely, it can be difficult to differentiate between the leader and the follower. In fact, things can get so rough on the leader that he or she must lean on the follower – the follower becoming the leader at least for a while. The follower is loyal to the vision.

A Leader Sets Priorities

A leader is usually the one who is making sure everyone is working on what MUST be done. It is not that other things shouldn’t be done as well, but there are always top priorities that take precedent. It is often upon the leader to make sure that enough revenue comes in in order to pay the rent and the power bill. A truly skilled leader will also have people working on what will bring success in the future, not just the immediate concerns of the present.

A Follower Knows the Score

A competent follower is not oblivious of what is going on. They know the priorities as set by the leader and they work on them. Hopefully, they are also looking to the future but they do not neglect the urgent priorities. The truly reliable follower will keep the leader abreast of what is going on and will provide vital information without embellishment. Just like in sports, someone has to keep score and act accordingly.

A Leader Thinks Outside the BoxWhat Qualities Differentiate a Follower from a Leader

The leader will often think of things that no one else thought of. When everyone else is scrambling around, they’ll say, “Hey, why don’t we try…?” and things will miraculously turn around. They’ll come up with some seriously bright ideas. Great leaders are often known for outside-the-box thinking. But it’s one thing to think of something. It’s quite another to be able to make an idea materialize in the physical universe. Any great leader does exactly that.

A Follower Follows the Rules

A follower by definition follows. But as I mentioned before, a good follower is not a robot. That is an important distinction. A follower should adhere to the standard procedure of his or her position, but should not do so with a blindfold on. Rules do not exist simply for their own sake. They should serve some purpose. An intelligent follower should be well-versed in what they’re doing, while also knowing WHY the rules are there. They should be able to judge specific situations.

A Leader Has People Skills

A leader is very often also a great salesperson, but this is not always the case. A more accurate description is that a leader is a great communicator. A leader knows something about people and how to deal with people. There is a distinction here between communication and public relations. A politician may be great at PR and getting votes, but it doesn’t mean that anyone should rightfully believe what he’s saying. A genuine leader will attract people to his cause because he is genuine. When he communicates, people listen.

 A Follower is a Good Listener

A follower is the person who pays attention to the communicator. The leader can’t do everything themselves. They need people on their team. Beside a great leader there are those dedicated to what the leader is trying to do. These are people that are listening and have their eyes open. Their loyalty is informed by reason and their will to affect a change. They see the leader as a way to rally people together and get something worthwhile done.

A Leader is Respected

There is a certain amount of “symbology” in leadership. In the military, an officer wears certain symbols, stripes, colors, etc. to indicate who he or she is. A unit or ship’s company grants respect to the symbol as well as the person. Granted, the respect can be forced and without proper judgment, but it is important to understand how this works. In the business world, it could be a well-tailored suit or a shiny car that symbolizes an “important” person. It is not that these things are senior to hard work or administrative acumen, but it is pertinent to understand the relationship of symbols to respect.

A Follower Recognizes Power

A follower understands something about power. Power could mean doing the hiring and firing in a business, or it could mean running a whole city or country. A smart follower recognizes who wields the power. This doesn’t mean sucking up to your boss. It means that someone in a position of power – as long as they are not abusing that power – should have some people around them who back them up. A follower who does this will often wind up with some of the power delegated to them. Responsibility piled on one person can be quite untenable. A team that works together is formidable indeed.

A Leader Seeks a Higher Goal

A leader values excellence over mediocrity. The leader is the one pointing to the horizon and encouraging people to work harder and pursue excellence in all they do. There is the question of quality vs. quantity. The leader seeks both. When others are immersed in their day-to-day woes, the leader gets people to snap out of it and seek a higher goal.

A Follower Counts!

Often a follower gets immersed in the details to such an extent that they fail to see the overall picture. They can get discouraged. But a notable quality for anyone in any position is being able to collect oneself and persevere. Sometimes we must be reminded why we’re there in the first place. No matter what you do, you should be invested in it. If you don’t really care about it, why even bother?

What people do counts! No matter if you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or if you’re a numbers cruncher occupying one cubicle out of thousands. No matter if you’re flying around in a private jet making big decisions or manning the cash register. What you do does count! We need leaders and followers. Factually, some of our best leaders are very good at being both.


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