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On Leadership: Do you need followers to be a leader?

“The task of a great leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been. . . . Leaders must invoke an alchemy of great vision. Those leaders who do not are ultimately judged failures, even though they may be popular at the moment.” —HENRY KISSINGER

What is Leadership?

leader_and_arrowLeadership is the ability of an individual to be able to identify a goal and provide the necessary guidance and motivation to a group of individuals, with the objective of reaching those goals. Leadership does not necessarily means that the leader must be directly responsible for the activities of each and every individual, nor it means that the followers need to wait for instructions about how to accomplish the goal. Leadership simply mean that the followers adopt the leader goals as their own, and strive to accomplish them. Depending on the organizational culture, or even the specific society culture there will be different leadership strategies and roles that will need to be accounted by the leader in order to succeed . Independently of the specific strategy or the situation, there is a direct interaction and relationship between the leader and the followers on their pursue of the common goal.

Can you be a leader without followers?

We can identify a difference between being a leader and having leadership traits. In principle we can agree that an individual can and should have developed leadership traits before he/she becomes a leader, since without them what is there to attract followers? The ability to lead is different from being a leader. In order to become one, the individual must internally have the necessary drive and then work on developing the necessary skills that will allow them to become the leader they want to be (Jossey-Bass, 2003, p. xviii). Without an internal drive, even when given the opportunity to lead, the person may be put in a leadership position, but not be able to properly meet the requirements of a leader.

“Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow”

(Jossey-Bass).

business people with their heads togetherIn our own society we can see that many of the so called leaders have been in some cases unaware of the effect that their actions cause on their followers and the consequences of their acts. We all can follow the controversy now about Alex Rodriguez and his use of steroids in order to improve his performance as baseball player, and the effects that this had on his followers. In my opinion his actions were dictated by him only looking at his own personal situation, and not taking into consideration that many people looked up to him as a role model and a leader to imitate. In other cases such as movie and TV celebrities (leaders), they welcome the attention when is favorable, but very quickly reject it when the same attention is focused on their errors as we have seen with Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson and many others in the past.

Great Leaders or Mere Managers

The first thing we need to recognize is that in order to succeed organizations need both, leaders, and managers. When we look at leaders and managers, one of the fundamental differences is that in order to be successful:

“managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing”

Bennis, WG; Nanus, B (1985). Leaders: The strategies for taking charge

Some of the primary differences between Leaders and Managers are:

  1. Leaders connect the day-to-day activities with the organizational long-term goals. Mere managers only focus on the short-term results.
  2. Leaders think about the employees as people. Mere managers only care about titles or organizational charts
  3. Leaders earn the respect of their followers by “leading”. Mere manager only “want to be liked or feared”
  4. Leaders fell fulfilled when team members are recognized for their contributions. Mere managers feel threatened by their team members individual success
  5. Leaders empower employees by sharing information honestly and transparently. Mere managers hold back information because “it gives them power”
  6. Leaders take responsibility for the failures of the team. Mere managers blame the team and find scapegoats
  7. Leaders are concerned with the overall results. Mere managers only care about the process (even if they destroy the team or the company in the process)


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Jorge Mastrapa, PhD
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Jorge Mastrapa, PhD

Managing Partner at ICQ Consulting
Dr. Mastrapa is an internationally recognized author, public speaker, and cultural expert; with over 20 years of experience in the areas of culture and diversity, global leadership, and organizational culture.
Jorge Mastrapa, PhD
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