Endless quantities of books and countless numbers of websites are devoted to teaching us to become successful leaders. They tantalize us, and understandably so. Every day, calls go out from our parents, our professors, our employers and others to stand and become leaders in all our endeavors. Of course, for the typical student, this is nothing new; after all, being leaders helped us to get into Georgetown in the first place. We are leaders in our classes, in our clubs, in our innumerable services and among our friends.Humbly, however, I’d argue that although the collective wisdom of the ages (and of our parents) might say otherwise, we students, and more generally all people, are not intended to be leaders. Instead, we are called to do quite the opposite — for a world full of leaders is a dangerous place for everyone.
As I see it, the problem is this: If everyone is a leader, who’s left to be led? If everyone is the Sherpa, then who is climbing Mt. Everest? If everyone is the traffic cop at the street intersection, then who is driving the cars? If everyone is formulating the blueprints to the house, then who is actually building it? In short, our misunderstanding of leadership is a societal hubris; in our world, there are far too many leaders and far too few followers.
Unfortunately, a social stigma has slowly crept its way into our impression of a “follower.” Followers are the small-minded, uncreative folk who lack powerful insight; they play an insignificant role in the world when compared to leaders; they are a dime a dozen and are enslaved to the powerful leaders they follow. Followers are the lemmings of the human race. They march blindly ahead, throwing themselves from cliff heights at the slightest nod of their demagogue master.
This is far from the truth. In fact, the follower is far more important than the leader. A leader can draw castles in the sky, but only the follower can take that vision and build a castle on the hillside. A leader can envision the healing of the world and call for it, but only the followers’ hands and strength can achieve that panacea.
The word “leader” comes from the Old English word laedan, meaning, “cause to go with one.” But one cannot guide if no one will follow. The word “follower” comes from the Old English word full-gan, meaning “full-going”: The follower is passionate, excited and motivated. The leader cannot exist without the follower; the connection between the two is unbreakable.
Yet, how often do leaders forget about “their” followers? In doing so, they divorce themselves from the greatest trait any leader can possess: trust. No leader exists in a vacuum; they must rely on those around them to accomplish their goals. The best leader is one that inspires his or her followers and trusts their work so much that he or she need not even be present for the job to be done. As President Eisenhower realized, leadership “is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
A great leader does not only display this trait in the small, everyday interactions, but also in the greatest act any leader can perform: stepping down from power. For the act of relinquishing power is really to trust those who follow to expand upon your accomplishments and learn from your mistakes. The great leader recognizes his own limitations; the great leader does his part and lets others do theirs.
We, therefore, are not called to be leaders: We are instead called to be a leader. The distinction is linguistically subtle, but the ramifications are immense. For if one is a true leader, that person trusts that others will lead where he or she cannot. A true leader guides in that one area where he or she can make the greatest difference and accepts the guidance of others elsewhere. A true leader is not asleep but is instead a daydreamer: A leader does not consist of visions and words alone, but also of his or her actions in relation to other leaders’ visions and words. A leader arises to make a realistic difference, and a true leader departs once that objective has been accomplished.
So, be a follower to your peers and friends as well as a leader. Inspire, but also be inspired. Guide, but also let yourself be taken down unknown paths. Dream, but also toil to realize the dreams of others. A world of leaders is fleeting; the world of the leader is full of potential.
Michael Fischer is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. POSTSCRIPT appears every other Tuesday.