Paul Butler: Follow the leader

Paul Butler
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When I was a young English schoolboy, we used to play a game called “Follow the Leader.”  

Did you play that here as a kid? The basic premise of the schoolyard game was that one person was designated the leader, and everyone else fell into their role as followers. Where the leader walked the followers walked. What the leader did the followers did.  

Sometimes the leader walked where some followers didn’t want to go, or they did what some followers weren’t prepared to do, and so some followers dropped out.  

A metaphor, if analyzed enough, will eventually break down, but let’s explore the workplace application of this simple game for a couple of minutes.

For the game to work, there was just one leader. I often think in many workplaces around the world part of the problem is there are so many layers of supervision, management and executives that the followers don’t know who to follow.  

On the flip side, it can be very dangerous, of course, when one leader has all the power. As Lord Acton famously said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The followers did what the leader wanted them to do. I often think the problem inside many teams and organizations is not so much a lack of leadership but rather a lack of followership. I remember when I was a full-time employee, a boss telling me straight: “Paul, you are not easy to lead.” This was a paradigm shift for me. From that day forward, I made a concerted effort to be a better follower. 

On the flip side, we should draw the line if our leader walks somewhere we know we shouldn’t walk or instructs us to do something we know we shouldn’t do.  

At this point, we stop being followers, and — if necessary — become whistleblowers. We should speak up if the command is fraudulent; if it could cause a safety hazard; if the request is immoral or goes against our own personal core values. If no action is taken by the powers that be (i.e. human resources) we should consider looking for a new line to join (i.e. get another job).

In the schoolyard game, some followers dropped out if they didn’t want to follow the leader anymore or were called out by the other followers for not doing what the leader wanted them to do. 

One of the best things an unhappy employee can do is to quit. Likewise, I believe one of the worst things an unhappy employee can do is not quit but stay. Unhappy employees can drag others down with them — they become like a toxic poison within the organization.  

If unhappy people are unprepared to stand up or speak up, respectfully, about what needs to change, they should drop out of the game.

I can still see the game being played out in my distant memory — a line of schoolchildren weaving uniformly through the schoolyard. An interesting phenomenon took place when the line was walking together well — more school children joined the game. 

The line got bigger and bigger. 

My observation has been when a team of individuals follow their leader well, it has a positive impact on the organization. In time, the organization becomes a “great place” to work. People have a passion for the work they do. The organization then becomes a talent magnet and more people want in than those who want out.  

I have observed this to be the case when teams are clear on their mission; have a line of sight toward a compelling vision and operate, promote and reward toward a set of noble, honorable values.

There are so many books, podcasts, keynotes and articles about leadership but very few on the subject of followership. If our leader is a man or woman of high character and high competence, let’s follow their lead. There’s no perfect organization, as we’re all imperfect people, but always be a positive influencer as a follower.

Good followers are hard workers who go the extra mile. Good followers look for solutions rather than magnify problems and contribute ideas constructively. Good followers are attentive listeners and effective time managers. Finally, as the lesson I had to learn — followers must be easy to lead. There’s a time for leadership and a time for followership.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected]

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