The Opposite of Leader is Not Follower | Leadership #PeopleSkills

Classic business wisdom proclaims that there are leaders and followers. Perhaps this seemed true when leadership consisted of giving orders. Yet even then every action an employee took influenced others, the outcomes, and the future. Back then and today it is clear that the opposite of leader is not follower. It’s high time we stopped using the word follower and replace it with influencer or, as some suggest, collaborator.

In fact let’s not describe the relationship between leaders and employees as opposites. Let’s see the relationship as it truly is — influential and interactive. “The complement of a leader is an influencer or collaborator.”

This discussion is not a silly debate about words. Clinging to the legacy leader/follower model can have grave results on employee engagement, innovation, and accountability.

For Employee Engagement, The Opposite of Leader is Influencer, Not Follower Image by:smemon87

Leaders, are you delivering the message to your employees that they are your followers? Or have they chosen that role on their own? If you find yourself wanting more employee engagement, more collaboration, and greater employee accountability, you may be perpetuating the leader/follower model.

  1. It happens because the model is simple. You as leader have the power. Employees feel less responsible. It feels comfortable. Yet the results are far from comfortable. Without empowerment and accountability, the business will fail.

  2. Check your words, actions, demeanor, policies, and processes. In what areas do your employees think they are not allowed or skilled enough to give input? Even if you are not an order-giving directive leader, you may still be communicating the myth of leader/follower.

  3. What’s your tolerance for risk? The lower the tolerance, the greater the chance you are communicating the myth and treating them as followers. Consider the customer service reps that are told to read from a script. It is the leaders’ desires to minimize risk that tells these reps they should just follow along.

What invalidates the leader/follower concept? Additional human interaction. The leader is not and cannot be with every employee at every moment. For example, a customer’s reaction to a rep reading a script is something that the rep must handle without the script from the leader. That rep is an influencer on the leader’s vision. On project teams, everyone interacting to deliver successful project completion are influencers/collaborators on that project — no matter how strong the leadership.

For years, sales executives have seen their sales reps not as followers but as influencers. It’s time that all leaders live the truth that all employees are influencers in some way. This model doesn’t create chaos. It creates success.

When leaders tap the employees as their complements and influencers, they increase employee engagement, contribution, accountability, and ultimately, success.

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Posts:
Leadership People Skills: Make It Easy to Gather for Success
Employee Engagement Currency: Why Employees Work

©2011-2017 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email for permission and guidelines. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.


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18 Responses to “The Opposite of Leader is Not Follower | Leadership #PeopleSkills”

  1. Kate, I agree that the opposite of leader isn’t follower. But I’m a big believer that leaders influence. For me, the compliment to a leader is “collaborator.” They create value and they choose to participate. (I used to say “contributor” but then Chad Balthrop wrote a great series titled Transactional Leadership on the language of leadership and I changed my term.)

    The negative, passive opposite of leader is follower – someone who has to be told what to do and who must be led. Most organizations really want collaborators, not followers. But weak leaders will take followers over collaborators or your “influencers” above because they can’t “control” every factor of the relationships.

    Glad you started the discussion! Thanks. Mike…

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Collaborator is a strong possibility in my book. I still like influencer a tad better yet both suggest active listening, speaking, and contributing.

      Thanks for the alternative Mike!

  2. David Couper says:

    I agree. The trick is for employees to be successful influencers. I am not sure what you recommend. I have found this to be effective includes:
    – being strategic by having an end goal in mind when working with your leader or manager
    – having the courage to offer your ideas and your views even if they are different
    – knowing when to push on and when to retreat gracefully when influencing.
    Glad I found your blog.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Great suggestions David. Successful influencers is the point. In my previous post, I discuss the voices of success:

      Sudden Teamwork: The Voices of Success

      Very pleased you found this blog and contributed your perspective and tips. I hope you will share your thoughts on any post of interest to you. We continue to learn together.

      Best wishes,

  3. The thing that really perked my ears was “it is a disincentive to employee engagement”. While it may be wholly unintentional, the relational dynamic between the leader/follower paradigm is elevated status.

    If people feel like followers, it is quite possible they feel like 2nd rate citizens in the organization/team. With that in play, these people aren’t going to be terribly excited about being engaged in what they do.

    Love the distinction Kate!


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks William and your more expansive explanation of “employee engagement” added to this post. Many thanks for giving your expertise here.

  4. Kate, I think you bring up some valid points about leader relationships. As a field leader I find that associates feel valued when they are part of the solution rather than just following directions. I must admit that I don’t always feel the same about the leadership from above (I.e. Corporate hq). We are given many conflicting and ever changing messages as to how to add value.

  5. We are all sometimes leaders and sometimes followers. I believe that service is leadership. In the “servant-leader” leadership model, those who serve are leaders and those who are served are followers. And the roles can be reversed from time to time, indeed, from moment to moment. In this sense, the roles of leader and follower are value-neutral. We can be influencers and influenced at the same time.

  6. Al Smith says:

    Thanks Kate. Very interesting thoughts. I have always heard and believed that leaders “Influence” others and when you help change anothers thoughts and actions, you are a Leader with Influence. You present a new way to look at this. I like it.


  7. Lisa Jordan says:

    Great post Kate, thank you. Human interaction, it all really boils down to that! I know Stephen Covey distinguishes the roles between leader and manager in “& Habits” but I really like this post’s inclusion of the rest of the team, staff, etc.

    I’ve seen relationship material identify a controller and a manipulator in couples. One that overtly calls the shots and the partner that either follows or sabotages the efforts. Although I’m not crazy about the negative connotations, how controlling and manipulative a relationship may be will depend on the overall health/dysfunction of both parties just as you’ve identified the relative health of the relationships within the organization.

    How willing any leader is to truly look at themselves will really be the factor for success in any organization.

  8. Thank you Kate for challenging the dichotomy between leader & follower. You’re absolutely right to do so. The rest is for me a semantic discussion. We all lead together & leaders know when & who to follow. I haven’t met a great leader yet who doesn’t follow blindly his or her assistent for daily planning or his or her partner at home for private matters. Kind regards & keep it up. Koen

  9. Kate,
    I missed the first round of tweets on this and I am glad I found it. I have been developing a great way to bring leaders and influencers/followers together to be part of the “what can I do to make you successful” conversation and the toughest thing to find is to name the role of the teammember/associate/person in such a way that gets the conversation moving without making people slip back into old habits.
    You post was timely and very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Kate! I love this post – absolutely outstanding! The benefits of this type of language (and the thought-process) by the leadership is obvious, as respect for the people who influence is the crux of true employee engagement.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you Heather! So glad you and many others have engaged discussion on this post. It was one I felt from my gut and am gratified by the insights and interest. I often read and RT your posts on Twitter and am honored that you have lent your vision on employee engagement to this post.

  11. Gil Pizano says:

    Kate, I couldn’t agree with you more. You are so correct in the more realistic view of Leaders and Influencers. The most successful leaders have never had followers, they’ve had people who chose to do something based upon what the leader said or did. This is really something that more and more leaders need to be aware of (especially in today’s world) if they really want to be “successful” in a leadership role. Thank you for the great article!!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      I really like the way you said “people choose to do something based upon what the leader said …” And I would add that everything people say and do influences everyone else — the teammates, the leader, and so forth.

      Thanks for contributing here and I hope you will add your perspective to any post here at Smart SenseAbilities.

  12. Alli says:

    I love this, Kate. It’s truly about more than semantics. The world has changed and any leader who thinks that they get to bark orders at their team isn’t leading at all… they’re dictating. Influence and collaboration are a two way street. Yes, one person may lead the way forward but they cross the finish line together.



    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you Alli. I have seen so many leaders struggle with employee engagement yet they continue to use the word “follower.” It is such a contradiction!
      Always glad to hear your perspective.

      Grateful regards,

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