It's hardly news to say that ours is a culture fixated on celebrities and leaders. We elevate individuals into prominence and admire them for their leadership qualities or talents. In fact, we train our young people to aspire to such status. As a fellow journalist and educator recently wrote (and got me thinking about this), our colleges invest a lot of effort into preparing the world's next leaders. We sharpen their thinking skills so they can guide companies and hone their speaking skills so they can inspire communities. We expect them to aspire to positions of power so they can influence and shape culture. And if they're not prepared to lead by the time they graduate, no worries. There are oodles of books, videos and workshops on becoming an effective leader. As if leadership were the highest—and only—goal. Who can imagine a university advertising, "We train the next generation of followers"?!
Maybe we should.
Maybe we should teach listening instead of speaking skills. Reflection instead of strategic thinking. And for that matter, principles of following instead of leading. I'm not talking about doormat stuff here, or the mindless hoopla of mob scenes. No, I'm talking about thoughtful followers with character, integrity, patience. Those who don't feel compelled to lead a company or star in a movie, but who know—really know—their contributions are just as insignificant.
The thousands of graduates this spring entering the workplace might feel equipped to climb the ladder of success but I'm not sure they know how to hold it steadily in place so others can climb. Or want to. But we need good followers—smart, insightful and self aware citizens as much as we do leaders of the same ilk. We need those un-ambitious types who can watch the crowd swept up in the latest political movement and question its goals and language. Not because they want to take over or even join, but because questioning is the right thing to do.