As I gathered my thoughts today about what I wanted to write, I reflected back to conversations Heather and I had recently on leadership. I began thinking about the flip side of leadership, which is all about the following of the leader, or maybe followership. First thing I noticed as I began to write was that my spell checker picked it out and underlined it in red. How come? It had no such problem with leadership. Maybe it’s because no one has ever really studied the art and science of following. Maybe it’s because there’s no such art and science.

What I’m writing today is more of some musings than a delivery of well-thought-out principles. I’m intending to stimulate thought and ideas rather than lay down something that I can defend.

Here goes.

Followership begins as an emotional response to some experience. If there is any rational underpinning behind the experience, that will come later. Followership always begins as a positive experience. It begins the moment you are inspired by someone. Later experiences of fear and dread may arise because of becoming present to what it might take to achieve where you want to be lead. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is 1668 words long. I read the whole speech for the first time a few years ago. I was left dramatically inspired. The speech is eternal. Its message is about bringing freedom and equality to the “Negro” of the United States. It is not a speech about ways and means, about logic, about dogma. It is a speech of inspiration.

Followership begins a few nanoseconds after the inspiration is experienced. It is usually unspoken, unexamined, unquestioned. It’s another emotional experience if put into words would be something like “Count me in”. For the follower it likely is experienced as a single experience. Later, maybe moments later or maybe years, there may be some back tracking as other factors come to play but in the moment you are part of the following. You are full of fire and passion.

All followership begins with only two people: you and your leader. Here’s the quote that I read most mornings as I sit down to do my writing. It inspired me and captured something that bound me to its creator.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I’ve included this quote in an earlier blog, What no one told us, and it’s attributed to Howard Thurman. I had never heard of him until I used Google to try and find out who was responsible for the quote. Turns out Mr. Thurman was someone who greatly inspired Martin Luther King. Somewhere in King’s life he had a moment of one on one with Thurman and became a follower.

Followership is a gift which when combined with the gift of leadership forms a whole. Both gifts are conditional. They can be taken back and must be nurtured continuously for them to stay in existence. A follower stops following over some sort of fall-out. The fall-out may be significant, like the discovery of some form of treacherous betrayal or simply a slow, withering away. When I was a young man, John F. Kennedy inspired me. I remember hearing some of his speeches in 1960 when he first ran for president. I wanted him to win and was so ecstatic when he defeated Nixon. And I was a Canadian high-school student! What did I care about American politics? I can still remember driving to university with Robin Carson in 1962 and him telling me that we might all be blown up before the day was out. That’s how I heard about the Cuban missile crisis. And like everyone of those times, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Kennedy was assassinated. Later I stopped following his ideas as I couldn’t accept the ways and means of politics, but I never stopped admiring the man.

Because followership is such an emotional issue, the follower is wise to continuously examine the worthiness of what the idea is that’s being followed. This is my personal conviction and is not offered with a caveat. I’ve spent over 40 years thinking on this and can find no instance where doing critical thinking about anything is a bad idea. For something that you are about to follow, large or small, think before acting. If you don’t have time to think, you probably shouldn’t act.

Followership that goes beyond two people into what can be called a movement will always have some well-thought-out ideas behind it. These may not be good ideas but there will be a depth to it. The civil rights movement from the United States goes on today from those who were touched deeply by Martin Luther King’s inspiring speech. Although I can’t remember an accurate date for it, I remember reading the American Declaration of Independence back in my teens and being aware that I was experiencing something great. Those ideas of freedom became part of my sense of life before I could articulate why and have been the explicit driving force in my life since 1971. Clearly the words of Thomas Jefferson and Howard Thurman brought out followership in me.

But no idea for me exists without some why behind it that must be answered rationally. Why is freedom important? Why does it matter? I need freedom of thought and action as a prerequisite to living a happy and meaningful life. That’s the starting point of my thought. It’s my axiom. Ultimately freedom is a gift that I granted myself. No one can set me free. I am free now. I am happy now. I am fulfilling my purpose now. I have come alive. You can too.

Who moved and touched you? Who do you follow? Do you know why?

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