‘The paradox of leaders who are followers and followers who are leaders’

Peter B Godfrey
5 min readFeb 16, 2021


Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

“The process is so complex and multidimensional, so fluid and transforming, that the persons initially labelled leaders or followers come to succeed each other, merge with each other, substitute for each other. Leader and follower roles become ephemeral, transient and even indistinct.”

As part of my quest to understand and better appreciate all things ‘leadership’, Transforming Leadership by James MacGregor Burns (2003) is on my reading and reference list.

Just this morning I revisited Chapter 10 of Transforming Leadership: ‘The Leader-Follower Paradox’, and this Medium piece emerged right in front of me. Thank you for reading it.

We live in a binary world, right? Yes or No, Male or Female, Old or Young, Rich or Poor, Black or White, Ruler or Ruled, Conservative or Radical, Left-Brain or Right-Brain, Agency or Structure, Apple or Android, Leader or Follower. A binary view makes analysis a whole lot easier, right?

My working hypothesis is that we don’t live in a binary world, and while a binary view might make media and social commentary easier, binary analysis is actually too simplistic, and belies our ability to carry and emit a greater cognitive load. Moreover binary analysis misses out on the technicolour of all aspects of life. (There’s spectrum thinking too, perhaps for another Medium piece soon.)

Medium isn’t the place to place a tome on all things binary, but it’s certainly the place for me to muse on the non-binary nature of the Leader & Follower relationship. Aided and guided very well by Burns (2003) of course.

My humble aim here is simply to organise some of my own thoughts, which may in turn provoke a thought in you, and in so doing add to the practice, the art and science, of leadership somewhere somehow, in my world and in yours.

What prompted the thought bubbles that follow here was this from Burns (p 170):

“Students of leadership have their own way of analysing concord and conflict. They divide people into leaders and followers.”

So true.

Burns continues:

‘The relationship seems so simple at first glance: leaders lead, followers follow. Leaders dream the dream, take the initiative, connect with followers, start the action. Followers hear the call, share the dream, respond to the initiative.”

Without filling this piece full of Burns quotes and extracts he goes on to challenge this simplicity, using examples from history, politics and business, and asks this, in my view, very powerful question:

“Does the potential follower even hear the leader?”

Ponder that question my Medium reading friend next time you are at the head of the table delivering your latest manifesto, or on your feet demonstrating your latest idea, to your ‘followers’. Do your followers even hear you?

Burns also offers that leadership and followership are intertwined and fluid, and asks how do we distinguish conceptually between leaders and followers?

He draws on psychologist E.P. Hollander who urged heightened focus on followers, and on the dependence of leaders on followers’ perceptions, expectations and potentials. Read that twice — ‘the dependence of leaders on followers’.

Hollander also noted:

“All initiatives need not come from the leader.”, and “Followers also have the potential for making significant contributions to successful leadership.”

I paused here myself and reflected on many of the individuals in the teams that I have led over many years now. Names and faces flashed through my mind, fondly, as did memories of their profound ability to ‘initiate’ and to ‘contribute’. Beyond doubt we would have achieved far far less as Teams if all were left up to me, ‘the leader’.

Political scientist C.C Euchner also gets a mention by Burns in that Euchner pointed to ‘the need for enlightened and engaged followers as well as leaders’, adding, ‘that passive followers make leadership difficult.’

‘Passive followers make leadership difficult’, how true.

In helping his readers navigate this paradox and its related terrain Burns’ introduces Jane Howell’s terms of ‘socialised leaders’ and ‘personalised leaders’, where socialised leaders recognise followers needs, respect their autonomy, and engage them, while personalised leaders dominate followers and ignore their needs except when necessary to advance their own ambitions. (Side-note here in relation to personalised leaders, as raised by my proof-reading colleague. Is it possible that one acting as a personalised leader is doing so not solely driven by their own ego and narcissism, but perhaps driven by a fear of failure and the consequences that may rise and fall on them from further up the organisational chart?)

Against this backdrop, and accepting for a time that by and large that engagement between leaders and followers is typically quite superficial, pause here for a moment of leadership self-reflection, and let’s try to take the binary (either this, or that) away.

Where do you sit along the socialised — personalised continuum? Have you seen the socialised leader and the personalised leader in action? How effective were they? How did each make you feel? Who did you do your best work for?

Burns leaves his readers with the suggestion that the paradox disappears if we see a more complex and integrated, ever-reconstituting, system in which the function of leadership is palpable and central but the actors move in and out of leader and follower roles, rather than a simplified (and in my view binary) identification and labelling of some as leaders and others as followers. From this point he proffers that we are no longer seeing individual leaders rather we see leadership as ‘the basic process of social change, of causation in a community, an organisation, a nation, perhaps even the globe’.

Before I close this piece out I thoroughly recommend Transforming Leadership, Burns, 2003, make it to your reading list. In his leader follower paradox he also deals with the interesting notion of empowerment: bogus-empowerment, psycho-political empowerment, and psycho-symbolic empowerment (perhaps Part 2 of this Medium muse).

A quick delve back into Burns’ today reminded me that to define and describe leader and follower, and leadership and followership, in binary terms is too narrow, too simplistic. It is far more complex and multi-dimensional. It is about context and situation, it is about wants and needs of both leader and follower, and it is definitely about empowerment.

‘Some may wonder why so much is made of just where leadership and followership begin and end. But this question lies at the heart of the core issue — the relationship of leadership and followership not only to each other but to social change and historical causation.’

The heart of the core of the issue, compelling stuff, and definitely a fit with other well held constructs of leadership as a social process and as a creative process.




Peter B Godfrey

I have thoughts, I am a thinker. I write words, I am a writer.