Understanding Leaders Through Followers’ Eyes

From the earliest studies until today, major concern in leadership has been leaders’ figure, characteristics, or their influential role. However little is said about the role of followers. A leader is a leader, only through the acceptance of authority and influence by his/her followers. That is what law of influence –as John C. Maxwell says, “If you can’t influence people, then they will not follow you. And if people won’t follow, you are not a leader. ” Analyzing leaders alone would provide scarce understanding; therefore we ought to consider leaders together with their followers, and their influence on each other. Followers are at key position in a leader’s influential role; where leaders and followers are inseparable parts of a single entity –i.e. manager and team of subordinate, political influencer and voters/supporters, column writer and readers, classroom teacher and students, etc. Leaders being aware of their followers’ characteristics, knowing who they are, and what makes them as followers, will make themselves far greater leaders. I, with a reversed perspective, will attempt to bring new understanding and awareness, by providing leaders a self-reflection through their followers, and remind that every leader, while being followed, is as well a follower, to other leaders or him/herself.


In my previous article –Outstanding Leadership Through Positive Development Approach, I introduced the importance of positive development approach for outstanding leadership; however did not explain how. So, why not explore it now… To begin with, any development approach, whether positive or not, begins with self-awareness, and leads on with self-management. Let aside leaders’ development, these are pivotal aspects for individual’s healthy and goal-directed functioning.


I now invite you to have a fresh glance at yourself, as a leader. Have a look at your leadership style… Observe your followers; who they are, their characteristics –such as their unique skills, abilities, knowledge and experience. Just think, what is the particular context that brings you together? It may be part of a million-dollar project at work… a social welfare project within a non-governmental organization… or an empowerment program as part of a social responsibility volunteering… perhaps as part of a self-managed team, where all team members are both leaders and followers.


This means that while being a leader with followers, you may as well be a follower –even the follower of your own leadership! It may sound weird… Well, who do you think is the single person that you are responsible or in charge of? You! You are the unique follower of your own leadership. It’s quite unusual to consider yourself in such a reversed role! Looking at yourself this way may be a valuable opportunity to explore about yourself as a leader, as the unique follower of your own leadership. The question is how… Please think about the steps you take to create leaders out of your followers. With your best possible intention, you help them strive and struggle to find out who they are, what they are, what they want to be, and what they wish to do in life. For that particular purpose, you encourage them for training and development, guide them for goal achievement, and you reward in success, criticize in failure, and provide help at setbacks. Aren’t these the exact steps you do for yourself? You actually lead yourself! Therefore, when it comes to leader-follower relationship, you are no different than your followers. In that sense, you and your followers are inseparable parts, where you may be the perfect personal example.


The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.

– John Wooden


Even though we perceive and ground ourselves in our current role –as a leader or a follower, we actually take both roles in different contexts, times and circumstances. For example, a doctor at certain point in life becomes a patient; a sales person becomes customer, and any leader is as well a follower of another leader… A corporate CEO, let’s say, will let go his leader’s role in front of a doctor! Now, looking from this perspective, I invite you to explore on the kind of a follower you are, and would like to be… placing yourself within various contexts, times, and circumstances, where you are actually at the role of a leader, follower, or even a simple observer who has no particular influence. Your explorations will help you better know and understand yourself; find out the drives you struggle for; be aware of the risks you take; realize what you do and what you dare for…


Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.

– Nelson Mandela


Part of this exploration, serves to understand how much you are ready to dare, as a leader or a follower, for your own sake and others. Because great leaders are the ones who risk themselves for the sake of others… Their well-being, prosperity, freedom, rights, life, etc. Leaders must be willing to give up more than the people they lead; and even give up for the people they lead. Leaders at front, ahead of his/her people, do not only open the pathway for followers, but they risk and sacrifice themselves for their people, against a challenging or dire situation. Emotionally intelligent followers see this; and that awareness creates a higher level of loyalty in followers.


The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others.

– Sonya Friedman.


So, what’s in here to take? We need to accept that we are what our followers are. We follow each other because of our shared qualities. We associate ourselves and connect with each other through our common characteristics. We mirror, influence, and lead each other through those shared qualities. Despite the designated context that brings us together, we are connected and loyal to each other because of our common values, shared beliefs, and motivation. That’s what makes leaders and followers loyal to one another. For this particular reason, you ought to “treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:31). Now, within this perspective, I invite you to be mindful of your own personal qualities, both as a leader and a follower; observe your style in leadership and followership; think of practicing more positive attitude and behavior –such as compassion, kindness, and empathy, towards yourself and others. This may bring you to a greater level of leadership –that is an outstanding leadership!


And, finally, emphasising that outstanding leadership (and followership) is through self-awareness and self-management, I’d like to conclude with the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu’s wise words, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”




Outstanding Leadership Through Positive Development Approach

Being a leader in today’s challenging world is quite a difficult role. It requires self-accountability, engagement, and will. It involves empowering others, rather than exercising power. Regardless of duty or work position, in essence, leaders have a responsibility and a sense of ownership derived from internal locus of control. Most leaders take a leadership role due to their job requirements, and ‘do the right thing’, rather than ‘doing things right!’ Meanwhile, some assume leadership beyond authority, by taking further initiatives beyond their task-role, due to their sense of responsibility, involvement, and care for deed doing. I would call them as ‘outstanding leaders’. Who may these outstanding leaders be? What differentiates them from others? How can you be one? Is it your skills, yours sources of power, motivation…? Perhaps your calling…


Not long ago, leadership research has tried to explain leadership by distinguishing leaders from managers; today further differentiation is made among leaders, highlighting outstanding leaders on the basis of humanistic and positive development approach. Long-years’ research and investigation sought to solve the dilemma of “leaders born or made”, to understand leaders’ power sources, and to identify the critical roles leaders played while influencing followers. In essence, it’s been concluded that, while managers, through their positional power, produce order and consistency –i.e. planning, organizing, staffing, controlling and problem solving; leaders, using both positional and personal power sources, produce change and movement –i.e. establishing vision and direction, aligning, inspiring and empowering people. Furthermore, leadership has been identified as a dispositional trait open for development, where some leaders are born, and with the adequate nurturing, all leaders can be made! Hence, with the humanistic approach, the scientific and technological developments, changes in the social and work life culture, and the growing demand for higher sense of responsibility, consideration of leadership and leader’s role shifted towards nurturing and development of human skills, resources and attitude.


Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.

– Mary Parker Follet.


Today, leaders’ role is shifting from ‘leader-follower relationship’ towards ‘leader-follower empowerment’, which involves producing self-engaged and committed leaders out of own followers. Here lies the question “How?” How would you, as a leader, both meet the needs of the society and empower your followers –let’s say the subordinate, when are expected to deliver an outstanding leadership? This is a great challenge… Being a leader is already challenging enough! So, naturally, outstanding leadership may seem beyond your ability. The truth, it is not! It simply requires certain personal skills and characteristics, such as authenticity, social and emotional intelligence, self-engagement, mindful attitude, and passion, which you may nurture and embody all in one! These characteristics, in essence, are the foundation to your ‘Personal Power1’ that you use as source for your leadership. No such leader is born overnight, however through positive development approach, they are made!


So, let’s get back to ‘how.’ According to research2, leaders with high level of positive psychological capacities (hope, optimism, resilience, self-efficacy), and self-awareness and self-management skills, have greater ability to exert authentic leadership. Such leadership style involves genuine, transparent relationship and future oriented behavior, and enables positive motivational direction and empowerment –that is the critical elements for change making and leader creating. Perhaps among the most prominent example from field of practice is Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership3 (SIYL) program. Since 2007, Google has been cultivating social and emotional intelligence, in cooperation with mindfulness4 practices. Why? To achieve stellar work performance, outstanding leadership, and well-being at Google.


It all began through identifying the magical touch of emotional intelligence and mindfulness: that these skills make people better leaders, who create positive work climate, more emotionally expressive, genuine and more sociable, friendlier and more democratic, more cooperative, more likable, and ‘fun to be with’, more appreciative and trustful5; and that these practices cultivate mindful attitude, develop self-regulation and management skills, and foster internalized positive attitudes and behaviors, such as empathy, awareness, compassion, openness, curiosity, and acceptance without judgment6.


What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

–Dr. Jane Goodall


That is not all! In fact, these interventions foster and flourish another important personal characteristics for outstanding leadership –self-engagement. Self-engaged leader has a very high sense of responsibility, commitment, and accountability over his/her work, such that own performance, as well as the outcome matters a great deal7. In a way, it brings forth the awareness of one’s calling; which involves the energy, power and motivation to making a difference; dedicating time and effort for meaningful and purposeful cause, finding ways to be able to do what he/she does, and feeling that what he/she does is the right thing to do! So, such interventions for positive development serve not only to the development of authenticity and outstanding leadership skills in current leaders, but also to the creation of new and more leaders.


The person who influences me most is not he who does great deeds but he who makes me feel I can do great deeds.

–Mary Parker Follet.


Follet8, long years ago, has expressed the vitality of leader’s role in transforming followers into leaders, and inspiring them to great leadership. Although it’s been precisely 100 years after her words, both academia and practice world still discuss leader’s influential role, and seek ways for establishing outstanding, empowered, and empowering leaders. I believe we have progressed immensely in the past century, through shifting from exercising power to increasing sense of power in followers; from employing positional power to enhancing personal power, and from authority as means of influence to using knowledge for mutual growth and development.


You might now be wondering about your place and state of being… Where are you, as a leader? You may be an influencer who brings out the leader in others. Or, you might be an influencer who has been created by an outstanding leader… Or, you are simply struggling to nurture your leadership skills, going along a lonely path, without the empowerment of a leader! No matter your position or field of authority, no doubt that you are an influencer at a leader’s role. How I know it? You have read these lines, all the way till the end! And I believe that once you take the ride of positive development approach, grow your awareness on your self-engagement level for what matters to you; cultivate your positive characteristics, such as empathy, mindful attitude, compassion, gratitude, together with positive psychological capacities, the outstanding leader deep within you will naturally surface, blossom and flourish.

Good luck and enjoy the ride!


How? By…

  • Being fully aware of your resources, skills, abilities, aspirations, values and causes that matter to you.
  • Identifying the meaning and purpose to your efforts, in making what you do.
  • Predicting the source of the energy, motivation and power to do what you do.
  • No matter what, doing the right thing, rather than doing things right.
  • Making a difference, for the benefit of yourself and all around you.
  • Empowering the sense of self-engagement and passion for what you do.
  • Cultivating positive psychological capacities, social and emotional intelligence skills, and positive developmental approach, through receiving support – such as training, coaching, mentoring, etc.
  • Instilling and nurturing all the above in others, so as to create new outstanding leaders.

1 French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power – Understanding where power comes from in the workplace.

2 Luthans, F. and Avolio, B.J. (2003) Authentic Leadership: A Positive Developmental Approach. In: Cameron, K.S., Dutton, J.E. and Quinn, R.E., Eds., Positive Organizational Scholarship, Barrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 241-261.

3 Tan, C. M. (2014). Search Inside Yourself, the unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace), HarperCollins, e-book.

4 Understanding Mindfulness, Dr. Shirli Ender Buyukbay, August 7, 2017

5 Bachman, W. (1988). Nice guys finish first: A SYMLOG analysis of U.S. Naval commands. In R.B. Polley, A. P. Hare, & P.J. Stone (eds.). The SYMLOG practitioner, 133-153. New York: Praeger.

6 Shapiro, D. (1992). A preliminary study of long term meditators: Goals, effects, religious orientation, cognitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24, pp. 23-39.

7 Britt, T.W., Dickinson, J. M., Greene-Shortridge, T. M. & McKibben, E. S. (2007). Self Engagement at work. In Positive Organizational Behavior Ch. 11, edited by Nelson, D.L. & Cooper, C. L., Sage Publication, London.

8 Mary Parker Follet, The New State (1918)