Many so-called leadership positions are followship positions.

One way musicians learn to conduct is by conducting recordings. We did this at drum major camp back in the days of vinyl albums and cassette tapes. That’s OK for teenagers who are just learning the basic motions of conducting, but it’s not how real conductors are trained.

When you conduct a recording, you’re not leading, you’re following. Conducting recordings teaches you implicitly to expect to be ignored. Real conductors train by conducting a pianist or a small ensemble. They expect to be followed, and they learn the consequences of their actions.

I use followship to describe inverted leadership. This happens when someone appears to be leading when in fact they’re following. Conducting a CD is followship. So is managing a team by keeping records of what the team has been doing rather than giving direction. Supposed leadership positions in business are often followship positions.

Followship is reactive, not interactive. Imagine an orchestra recording a CD. The musicians in the studio follow the conductor in a fundamentally different way than the music student following the CD. The musicians interact with the conductor. The student doesn’t interact with the CD.

Followship is not simply bad leadership. Followship is passive. Bad leadership is active.

When I was drum major in high school, one night I started our half time show way too fast. The color guard dropped their rifles several times during the performance and it was my fault. Their routine could not be performed at the tempo I had set. That was bad leadership on my part, but it was genuine leadership because the band followed my lead.

Leadership mistakes are embarrassing, but followship is even more embarrassing. It’s easier to admit a mistake than to admit being ineffectual.

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5 thoughts on “Followship

  1. I didn’t read very carefully at first, and I thought that you were saying that the secret of conducting (that is, real conducting) is that the conductors don’t really lead, but simply follow the orchestra. It sounded so illuminating… then I understood your point and I was a bit disappointed.

  2. Followship is when your manager asks, “When are you going to finish this project?” instead of telling you, “I need this project to be finished by this date.”

  3. Different angle than I’m accustom to, but very true. I believe this should also be orchastrated in the classroom. Our students are becoming too passive and disconnected from the math classroom.

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