Followership in the NY Times

Followership marks another milestone in its acceptance into the English language and human consciousness. The New York Times columnist David Brooks’ explores the topic in his June 11, 2012 column “The Follower Problem“:

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions.”

Virtually every study of what followers value the most in leaders puts trust at the top of the list. Trust is based on a number of factors including competence, honesty and fairness. Whether it is the behavior of American institutions or the media’s magnifying of inevitable flaws, trust has been damaged in all these dimensions.

Recently, I read an interview with a professional who immigrated to The United States. His perspective should inform ours. He was so appreciative that in this country he has never had to bribe a bureaucrat to get a driver’s license, building permit or passport. We really don’t know how bad institutions can be.

Brooks makes a crucial point:

Question Authority’ bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority.

This is the heart of my own work on courageous followership. Leaders that are trying to get things done and who are not violating core human values deserve support, even though their leadership is inevitably imperfect.  In contrast, leaders who violate core values need to be swiftly corrected before “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If they do not respond to the efforts of their loyal followers they need to be disempowered through the range of mechanisms available in a technologically advanced liberal democracy.

Brooks concludes:

“To have good leaders you have to have good followers – able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.”

I agree, with two caveats: do not expect perfection in this “just authority” and do not shrink from standing up to small misuses of authority which, if unchecked, can become very unjust indeed.


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