You Can’t Lead If You Can’t Follow

A friend of mine delivers leadership training in police departments. On the first morning he has the partners dance with each other, taking turns for an hour at a time as Leader and Follower. As most of them are men, they start off very uncomfortable as the ‘follower’, usually a woman’s role in dance. But follow they must; he tells them if they can’t follow, they can’t lead.

As Leaders with specific goals we’re responsible for, we operate from the assumption we’re in charge. But what, exactly, are we in charge of? I believe our job as Leaders is to be the sentries; facilitate our Followers to discover their best outcomes and help them set their path to a successful goal. As they say in Argentine Tango, if you notice the leader, he’s not doing his job.


With unconscious blinkers, limited by biases and assumptions, Leaders often begin with a plan, an idea, a fantasy if you will, of how to achieve an outcome and work at creating and driving the path to execute it. But this strategy faces several problems:

  1. We really have no way of knowing beforehand if it could succeed.
  2. We don’t know if any of the Follower’s ideas would make the outcome even better.
  3. Advocating our own ideas, with our own history, experience, beliefs and assumptions, we have no way of knowing how our Followers will interpret what we say given their own histories, beliefs, experiences and assumptions.
  4. We run the risk of pushback and resistance.

Even with an aim to be inclusive, we too often try to persuade them to adopt the path we imagine. This route might yield resistance at best; at worst, it not only restricts the full range of possible outcomes, but runs the risk of causing hostility and sabotage.


During the 2020 election I heard Presidential Candidate and Senator Amy Klobuchar say: “I haven’t gone on TV for interviews much before now. But my team told me I needed the exposure. So here I am.” Was she the Follower? Or the Leader? While smart enough to be considered to be leader of the free world, she didn’t have the foresight of her team to expand her publicity. That makes her the Leader AND the Follower.

I contend that when, as Leaders, we limit our directives to our own assumptions, ideas, and expertise, it’s not possible to achieve an optimal result: until Followers develop their own vision, using their values and voices; until the group discovers a path through their own group dynamics; until the group works collaboratively to develop creative outcomes that they can all buy into; there’s no condition for success. The outcome will be restricted.

So here’s the question: do you want to facilitate a route through to the best result? Or drive the path to the result you’ve imagined? You can’t do both.

  • What would you need to believe differently to trust you can achieve the best outcome if it’s driven by the Followers?
  • What is a Leader’s role if the Followers are in charge of the route to a successful outcome?

I believe that leading and following are two sides of the same coin. And I believe it must be an interdependent process.


I once trained a group of executive Leaders at a company with a reputation of having values. They were the most manipulative group I’ve ever trained. Getting them to consider any form of leadership that didn’t involve them having total control was a herculean task. Seeing my frustration one of them said: “But our message is values-based. Of COURSE it’s our job to convince them to do it our way! It’s the RIGHT way.” Having a great outcome does not give license to push our agendas to get it done OUR way.

As Leaders, we must give up our egos, our needs for control, our perceived value of being ‘right’, of being The One to exert power and influence. We obviously need to have some sort of control given we’ve got a job to do. But control over what?

There are two components to our job: 1. formulating a goal, and 2. getting there. We cannot control both unless we do it alone: success cannot be achieved without the good will, the buy-in, and passionate involvement of the Followers.

I suggest as Leaders we work collaboratively with Followers to formulate a goal. Once a goal is defined and agreed-upon, the Leader leads the Followers through their process of defining and constructing their process of getting there, then overseeing the journey, an interdependent process. On a day-to-day basis that means the Leader

  • controls the space that will enable all voices to be heard, giving rise to creativity, buy-in, collaboration, and mutual responsibility for planning and delivery;
  • leads the group through forming, failure, discovery and confusion, trials and success;
  • guides the group through the route they designed and helps them maintain equilibrium.

Here I’m reminded of another great Argentine Tango expression: The Leader opens the door; the Follower dances through using her own unique steps; the leader follows.


I contend that as Leaders we must assure results, but hand over the creation of the journey – the behavior changes, the activity, the buy-in, the creation of new rules and norms – to the Followers.

Let’s look at the two components, the goal and the route, from a systems perspective.

If leading a team through an initiative to enhance customer service, for example, the Leader is responsible for ending up with happier customers and supervising the journey to get there, while the Followers are responsible for

  • the route taken to get there,
  • the choice of the components of the new services,
  • what these services will do, the planning during the change and ultimate buy-in, and the rules that will maintain them,
  • ensuring buy-in and collaboration from the team,
  • what each team member will do,
  • how it will be delivered.

Unfortunately, leaders too often try to control both the goal and the journey. But I suggest we separate the functions.

It’s by controlling the goal we can plant a stake in the ground with the rules and criteria for success that all else emanates from. Our job then becomes to maintain the tone and vision; the job of the Followers is to make it happen.

When Followers control the journey they create a collaboration amongst themselves, use their combined imaginations to develop a set of behaviors and outcomes that will fit within the rules and structure, and take ownership of the process and journey to success.

Each Follower is a Leader who buys-in to the change and process, owns the solution, manages any resistance, and takes responsibility for implementation. The Leader then maintains the space the Followers created.


I’d like to share a story of my own journey as an entrepreneur of a tech start up in London in 1983. I began with no knowledge of business and even less of technology (Those were early days, remember?). I was smart enough to know my range of content knowledge – nil. So I wrote an outline of what I wanted to achieve:

  • a company that would take great care of the needs of customers in the area of 4th Generation Languages (Really early days!) with integrity, honesty, and win/win values;
  • be seen as a premier provider by charging high prices and great service expertise;
  • hire folks who will create out-of-the-box services that enhance what’s considered possible.
  • have staff be as happy and cared for as clients;
  • make money and have fun.

That was my goal. I had no idea what data I needed or what the journey would be. I did my best to research, speak with people, read a few books. Then I realized that it would be best if I hired good people who designed their own jobs.

My hiring process included asking applicants to bring in a P&L that included their salary and the route, within the confines of their job and the structure I put forth, to getting their salary AND bringing in a profit for the company. We ended up providing very unique and customer-driven programming, training, and consulting services to users and teams and bringing innovation to the field. But I didn’t know that when I started.

The applicant for the job of receptionist was quite creative. Ann Marie wanted a small salary and a percentage of the gross income. For this, she would make sure the company ran efficiently and staff and clients would be thoroughly taken care of to the point they wouldn’t want to go anywhere else and would have the time to do their best job. Wow. I hired her. And she did exactly what she said.

She made us write these daily TOADs – I don’t remember what the acronym stood for…something like Take what you want And Destroy the rest… but it took us an extra hour each night to write them up (No computers in daily use in the early 80s, remember?). Each morning we had to read the full set of everyone’s TOADS on our desks when we arrived. They involved current initiatives, our frustrations, any good/bad issues with clients and prospects, any good/bad issues we had with each other.

As a result, all of us knew ‘everything’. If a phone would ring and the person wasn’t there to answer, anyone could answer it and be able to help. As the receptionist, Ann Marie would make every caller feel cared for and comfortable. Office squabbles and gossip didn’t have a way to fester as we knew who was mad at who and arguments dissipated. Team members became familiar with problems faced by colleagues and came up with creative solutions. We had the knowledge to introduce clients to each other for follow-on partnerships.

Frankly, Ann Marie terrified me. Tall, officious, unsmiling, we all did what she told us to do (Talk about leaders!). And she walked away with pockets full of money as she helped the business double each year.

I hired John as a ‘Make Nice Guy’ to bridge the divide between technical and people skills. He wanted a $100,000 salary (in 1985!) to make sure techies, their code, and how our contractors maintained relationships with the teams they worked with, all ran smoothly. That was a no brainer. And another role I hadn’t known I needed to hire for.

With John taking care of all outside stuff, I had no fires, no problems, no crashes, no personality issues, no client problems, and I could grow my business. He even found out when a client was buying new software that we could support well before it arrived on site; when the vendor came to install it, my folks were there waiting, well before the vendor tried to sell their services.

The team worked hard to get me to say “We’re doing WHAT??” I was once walking down the hall and ran into my Training Manager. When I asked where he’d been hiding since I hadn’t seen him in days, he told me he was busy scouting out extra office space for the new training programs being developed. “We’re doing WHAT??”

And fill the seats he did, bringing in new clients and new programs. Including me as a trainer. “I’m doing WHAT??” Apparently, the team believed I supervised techies so well as a non-techie that I should teach other non-techie managers how to supervise their techie staff. I would never have thought of that myself. So they got me to run monthly programs which were always packed.

As part of my commitment to creativity and growth, I told the management team to take risks but to let me know if a disaster was imminent at least three feet before they fell off the edge (If they waited until they were already off the cliff there wouldn’t be a thing I could do but wave). And they did. As a result they took risks, created out-of-the-box programs, processes, and initiatives that I could never have dreamed of. And they mostly got it right.

By setting a tone of authenticity, I regularly discussed my failures and got input from the team as to how to make things better. This obviously opened the door for us all to discuss failures as part of our job. Also by maintaining control of the values and integrity of communication and relationships, by trusting the staff and enabling them to be Leaders and innovators, I was able to double the company income every year.

As a start-up in a new field, with no computers, no internet, no email, no websites, we had a $5,000,000 revenue (and 42% net profit) within four years. Everyone made money, loved coming to work, and grew individually. We controlled 11% of the market (the other 26 competitors shared the other 89%), had loads of fun, and we changed the landscape of what was possible.


I could never, ever have been that successful if I hadn’t trusted my Followers to create their jobs in a way that met my values. I controlled the goal. They controlled the journey. Win/win. Interdependent. Trust. Respect. Their joke was that they were the ones with the brains, and I was the one with the mouth. Cool beans. I opened the door, they danced through it, and I followed.

Leadership is an interdependent process with Followers and Leaders working together from the inside and outside simultaneously to inspire trust and reach the best possible outcome. Here are the givens:

  • The process is always transforming and dynamic, rendering pockets of success, confusion and failure, creativity;
  • There’s no way to know until the end what the trip will include so it’s necessary to build in trust, collaboration, and openness;
  • The result will be what everyone wants. The process of getting there will be different from what the Leader envisaged;
  • The process will proceed according to the values, creativity, and needs of the Followers;
  • The Leader will be respected so long as s/he uses her/his power to shepherd the process;
  • Failure is part of the process and can be used to inspire creativity;
  • Resistance will be visible early and managed by group with no fallout;
  • The result will be the best amalgam of everyone involved bringing their values and hearts.

A real Leader enables their Followers to operate interdependently, using their own values, their own creativity, their own vision. As Leaders we must stop trying to exert influence over the entire process and begin trusting Followers to lead us.


If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you know that I always include a ‘how’ so readers can use the ideas I espouse. In this case, my suggestions will be a bit challenging: the necessary skills to implement this style of leadership includes rethinking and enhancing two skills we all believe we’re good at and take great pride in – our listening and our questioning.

The reality is that no matter how professional, how fair, how honorable, how impartial we believe ourselves to be, when we use our conventional questioning and listening skills there’s a high probability we’ll be (unconsciously, unwittingly, automatically) biased by our words, ideas, needs, beliefs, and history.

I’ve developed ways to listen and question that avert bias and indeed facilitate transformation and expanded possibility. I train these skills to leaders when I train in an organization.

As Leaders, our job is to facilitate a collaboration with our Followers to interdependently create a successful goal. It demands that Leaders enter with a different outcome, a different mindset, and a different tool kit. But it’s worth it. We’ll end up with the real power of spearheading harmony, integrity, creativity, and excellence. And have a greater success than we ever could have achieved alone.


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. She can be reached at

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