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Whirling Chief

Being a Leader and Attracting Followers

I recently came across this quote by John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States (1825-1829). It reminded me that leadership is not a title, a role or a position; it is simply who you are being for others.

When I talk about leadership I ask the audience one simple question: If there is one thing that you need to be a leader, what is it?

I get many responses: purpose, vision, values, confidence, relationship building skills, even charisma – all good answers, but the one answer often missing is ‘a follower.’

Although the role of the follower is not often discussed, being a leader means that people choose to follow, not for the leader’s sake, but for themselves. This is because the world the leader describes is attractive to them, and because the example the leader sets shows them it is possible to achieve. People choose to follow leaders that inspire them to be more and accomplish things they would not accomplish on their own.

There are 6 things that I have learned about leadership over the course of working with some of the best leaders and best companies in the world in the last 25 years:

1) To lead others, first you must learn to lead yourself – leadership comes from your authentic self, from what matters most to you, which is your Why¹. This is the source of all leadership, and knowing this and being able to articulate it is the starting point for being a leader.

2) It’s a choice – leadership is available to everyone. It’s a choice to stand for what you believe and to take action based on that. Whatever your position in an organisation, it’s available to you.

3) It’s about going first – the choice is ours to go first with something, that we see others might not. This could be something seemingly small, yet might have a huge difference on others.

4) It’s about vision – leaders create compelling visions of the future, that describe what it could look like in this new world. Leaders communicate this vision in a way that enrols people, that touches, moves, and inspires them to join with them to bring this into reality.

5) Leadership is about serving others – leadership is never self-serving. Yes, it comes from your Why, but it is focused on providing something to improve the lives of others.

6) It’s not a title, role, or level – some of the best leaders I have known have had little hierarchical status inside their organisation, but nonetheless have been able to make a huge difference.

There is much talk about leadership, but one way to learn the most about it is to really look for when it is present. A simple test to find out if it’s present is to ask: Are people choosing to follow because they believe in the same things the leader does? If the answer is yes, we know that the first stage of leadership has begun.

It is also interesting to imagine how an organisation would operate without the rules and procedures and, most significantly, without organisational hierarchy; all of these exist mainly to compel people into action, i.e. to manage and not lead people. If these were removed, would people choose to follow the senior managers? Would they continue to operate using the rules and procedures? Would people see these as enablers of the organisation’s Why, or their own individual Why? – By the way, I am not advocating abandoning all these essential management processes, I am just using this enquiry to give better access to understanding the relative balance between management (compelling people into action) and leadership (impelling people into action.)

Leadership is thus about creating a future – a future that wouldn’t happen except for people saying it will and acting consistently with it in every moment. Leadership is about disrupting the norms, bringing into existence something that would not otherwise exist. Leadership is concerned not with what currently exists, but what’s possible for everyone and, as John Quincy Adams says, evoking leadership in others. Thus leadership is quite simple: it is about creating a clarity of Why, a vision of the future sourced from Why, and enrolling people in the journey. We call this ‘Moving Forward from the Future.’

And remember: you don’t get to decide if you’re a leader. Others do, and they choose for themselves to follow what you already believe.



¹ Why, your cause, purpose or belief, as first described by Simon Sinek in one of the most watched TED Talks.


  • 17 October 2016

By Simon Marshall

"I am an optimist that sees possibility everywhere: I believe that every person is capable of leading meaningful, fulfilling and extraordinary lives. When we tap into this huge potential in people, magic happens. And when we extend this across organisations, we can create healthy, resilient cultures and unprecedented performance –...


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