Earning the right to followers

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All leaders achieve one of three levels: appointed, accepted and adored. An appointed leader does not have to earn a leadership position, but is assigned to it. A newly minted Army second lieutenant receiving his or her first command is a good example of this level of leadership. The second level is follower acceptance of the leader. Once assigned to a leadership position, a leader has to earn the acceptance of followers through demonstrated competence in his/her assigned role. Rarely, followers come to adore their leader not only because of his/her competence, but because of his/her level-headedness and habit of protecting the dignity of followers. The leader demonstrates through his/her words and actions that he/she cares about followers beyond the boundaries of their roles on the team. I call leaders who achieve this level, Level-Three leaders.

Level-Three leaders are characterized by personal goodness, flawless execution and concern for the well-being of others. These characteristics result in spirit, high mutual regard between leader and follower, outstanding execution and intense loyalty. Because a leader must lead before followers can follow, this cycle of success necessarily starts with the leader. In short, followers do not have to earn the commitment of their leader; it simply has to be there or the leader will not earn the gifts of the very best followers — namely, performance, flexibility, initiative, innovation, and loyalty. Thus, leaders who claim not to care whether their followers like them as long as they respect them are leaving a lot of performance on the table — not theirs, but their followers’.

Being good answers

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms” is something that Socrates said that applies in spades to the practice of leadership. Many years ago, I took his sage advice to heart and wrote my own definition of a leader: A leader is someone who earns the loyalty of committed and enthusiastic followers and molds them into a high-performance team. You don’t have to agree with my definition, but if you aspire to be a Level-Three leader, you do have to have one if you are to answer the five burning questions that followers asked and that leaders have to answer:

1. Where are we going?

2. What will it be like?

3. How will we get there?

4. Can you get us there?

5. What is in it for me?

Compelling answers are a key to earning the loyalty of the best followers. The process of answering the questions is captured in the five responsibilities of a leader:

1. Teach an inspiring vision.

2. Compare the vision to reality.

3. Point the way from reality to the vision.

4. Provide the tools to make the journey.

5. Celebrate the successes and learn from the losses.

Much of what gets done in the name of leader development amounts to teaching leaders how to answer follower-questions in terms of the five responsibilities. Sometimes, it helps to turn the responsibilities into a “leader to-do list.”

Leader to-do list


  • I have a vision.
  • I teach my vision to followers.
  • Each person on my team knows his/her contribution to success.
  • I talk about the future of the company.
  • I am a role model for my vision.
  • I talk frequently about how to take care of our stakeholders.
  • My team enthusiastically buys-in to my vision.


  • I am realistic and straightforward about performance.
  • We measure what is important to success.
  • We plot the trends in our measures and talk about them.
  • I hold people accountable.


  • I know how to close the gap between reality and my vision.
  • I have a step-by-step plan for closing the gap.
  • Each team member knows his/her responsibility in closing the gap.


  • I have provided every resource necessary to close the gap.
  • We have a performance-based culture of high personal accountability.


  • I celebrate all moves forward from the gap toward my vision.
  • I consistently share the fruits of success with the team.
  • I include everyone in the celebration.
  • I use mistakes as a learning tool.
  • Every step forward is followed by an increase in standards.

Level-Three leaders have a watchmaker’s eye for the details of their to-do list. For example, if the above list applies to you, ask yourself whether the responsibilities are where you spend the vast majority of your time and how you know if you are fulfilling them as well as you want to.

Or try checking “yes” or “no” for each item on the list and explain to yourself what you are doing to earn a “yes.” This sort of self-assessment is a good way to reveal your strengths, as well as opportunities to move toward being a Level-Three leader.

Whether your team has five, 10, 20 or 200,000 people on it, to the extent that you are able to create leverage through the five responsibilities, you and your team will move toward Level-Three.