As I have said before, I am currently in the process of applying to college. On several of my applications, there is a required essay question that looks like this:
“Tell us about a leadership experience you’ve held, and what you learned from leading others.”
In fact, most of the schools I’m applying to talk about leadership somewhere in their mission statement. Universities today are obsessed with “educating global leaders” and “preparing our youth to lead.” A necessary qualification for our admittance, then, is previous leadership experience from high school to build on as we progress through the undergraduate years.
Of course, I have nothing against leadership itself- the world can always benefit from having more benevolent, understanding, and intelligent leaders to guide us through modern problems like climate change and international tension. (And, the United States today could benefit from having a viable, honest candidate for national leadership in general.) Leaders are a critical component of society, but in our obsession with leadership, we have forgotten to value the most important piece of the equation: followers.
Leaders cannot exist without followers, of course; to lead is to imply that someone is being led. Followers actualize the mission and goals of the leader. They fuel workplaces, resist oppression, and benefit themselves and the world by virtue of their voluntary service to the leader. What if Steve Jobs, the original CEO and creator of Apply, had been the only person to work for the company? What if Martin Luther King Jr. were the only person to follow his own demand to boycott the bus system? Followers make change possible. Without them, leadership has no value and simply cannot exist.
My fear is that my generation is being groomed to believe that we must either become leaders of current organizations, or go off on our own to create something new to lead. Some members of our generation need to fill these roles, but the vast majority of us will inevitably become followers- we will have bosses and mentors and superintendents for most, if not all, of our lives. We will surely be followers when we enter the job market, right after we leave the university that promised to turn us into a leader, and made us think that our value was based on our leadership potential. This contradiction, galvanized by secondary schools and universities across the world, is perhaps one of the most dangerous to the mental health of my generation. We enter the workplace as followers and become instantly depressed: “Why am I on the bottom? I thought I was a leader. Following is pointless- it has no value.”
We need to deescalate the importance and fixation on leadership in higher education. We should still give our youth access to leadership positions, and train our youth to properly manage and direct other people, but we can no longer hold up leadership as the essential pillar of a worthwhile career and life. We need to reinvest in the value of our followers, and teach leaders to pay attention to the desires and ideas of the people they lead. We need to give power and purpose back to the followers in the world, who truly are the ones we have to thank for the lives we live today. I would have no material possessions, no education, and nowhere to live without factory workers, construction workers, and teachers who operate under Division Heads and principals. I owe the comforts and opportunities in my life to followers as well as leaders, and this is too often forgotten.
I hope that you remember that following is just as vital a function as leading. There is no shame, no “failure,” in completing the orders set about by someone else. If you believe in the goals and mission of your leader, then your work is meaningful. You are building towards a vision that you care for, and turning your potential into good for yourself and mankind. Even the best and wisest leaders need followers to turn their ideas into reality; by following the best and brightest, we can join in their ideas and make progress in the world.
The human race is an ecosystem, and it takes all parts to keep it thriving and progressing. We must not take our followers for granted. Should they go extinct, believing their jobs unimportant, our world would fall apart.