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Vol. 5, No. 3
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

How to Attract Followship*

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2007 William A. Cohen, PhD


There has been a lot written on “followship” in recent years. Both practicing leaders and academic researchers realized that without willing followers, an individual who might otherwise be termed an outstanding leader and able to accomplish great things wouldn’t get very far. Even followers who grudgingly go along with the leader can make things extremely difficult for the group to accomplish any task. What is particularly surprising is that this is especially true when the followers are individuals of power, responsibility, and accomplishments either currently,  in other situations, or in the past. Look at any volunteer group, committee, board of directors or advisors, or temporary team and you will see examples of this phenomena. Some individuals will argue against almost anything the leader proposes or wants to do. Sometimes, they will sabotage the leader even when it is against the individual’s own best interests.


For those that watch The Apprentice on television, you can see this happen week after week. If you are unfamiliar with the show, I recommend watching it. There are some good lessons on leadership that you can observe for yourself. For those unfamiliar, The Apprentice begins the season with eighteen highly qualified candidates, all competing for the chance to become Donald Trump’s “apprentice” for one year at a salary of $200,000. The game starts as the candidates are divided into two teams competing against each other in completing a complex business project over a two day period. The leadership of each team generally rotates every week, although sometimes the rules change. The winning team is rewarded. The losing team must confront Trump in “the board room” where after a lengthy grilling, he selects one or more members of the team to be “fired” from the game and the show. The surviving candidate at the end of the season becomes the apprentice.


Time after time, candidates who are bright, successful in their careers, and know better, take actions which hurt their team, and frequently get themselves fired. One candidate went to sleep on the job failing to carry out his responsibilities. Another adamantly refused to take instructions from a team leader, a third demanded to stop to eat lunch at a critical time, a fourth ignored an important task because she was having a good time socializing. It’s almost incredible.

No one follows anyone else without being motivated to do so. Look at any situation where men or women follow a leader and you will discover reasons for their doing so or not. Luck or unusual circumstances may play a part. But mostly it is because of definite actions that the leader takes or fails to take.

The Most Powerful Motivator Of Human Behavior

Everyone wants to feel important, from the youngest child, to the oldest grandmother or grandfather. After basic survival, it is one of the most important of human needs. It is frequently the real reason behind both a child’s tantrum and an adult’s rudeness. It is one of the primary reasons that competent people in temporary groups are dysfunctional followers. A television special once sought the reason that some children became school-ground bullies. Why do some children insist on dominating and threatening their playmates? Why do some children torment and persecute other children? Sociologists thought that bullies would be less intelligent. They thought that these would be the kids that couldn’t do well in class. In most cases, this just wasn’t true.

What they did discover was that bullies got a sense of importance by lording it over others.  As one former bully, now grown up, told television viewers: “The more I was able to make weaker kids do what I wanted, the more important I felt.”

But this same motivator can have a tremendously powerful effect. Toward the end of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee faced a force of 100,000 Union troops with only 30,000 of his own. Just as he was about to be overrun, the Texas Brigade commanded by General John Gregg showed up. As related by Alf J. Mapp, Jr., in his book Frock Coats and Epaulets, “Lee rode up to the front of the brigade, stood in his stirrups, raised his hat from his head and boomed above the martial din, ‘Texans always move them.’An ear-splitting yell rose from the brigade. One of Gregg’s couriers, with tears running down his cheeks , shouted, ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man!'”1

Making one feel important is more powerful as a motivator than money, promotion, working conditions, or almost anything else. So you just know that we do everything possible to make others feel important. Right? Wrong.  We do the exact opposite. When we meet a surly clerk, we don’t think, “This person needs to feel important, and I’m going to make him or her feel that way.” Oh no, not us! We think, “How dare this person talk that way to me. I’ll show him how really unimportant he is compared with me.

So, we play a game of one up-man-ship in rudeness. The results are perfectly predictable. We have what is sometimes referred to as a “pissing contest.” If we have more power than the other person, we will probably get our way. The person will probably put up with our tirade, and probably won’t argue with us. But at what cost? Analysts term this style of misleadership, “manager disrespect.”  Professor Jack Mendleson at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana says, “Preliminary research findings show that manager disrespect has reached an epidemic level in the U.S.”2 So many leaders don’t lead. They confront and dominate with manager disrespect.

When you lead with manager disrespect, you may or may not succeed. One thing is certain. The person you are doing this to will not appreciate it. You may not be able to trust that person to follow your lead or your intentions when you aren’t around. In fact, if I had to bet some money, I would bet on the exact opposite. I’m not saying that there aren’t times when you must let someone know you are dissatisfied about something done or left undone. But don’t belittle that person’s importance so that they lose their self-respect – not if you want to lead and influence them.

The Woman Who Gave Away Pink Cadillacs

Experienced leaders know that making others feel important is crucial. Mary Kay Ash, the founder and CEO of Mary Kay Cosmetics built a $1 billion dollar company starting with a $ 5000 investment using this concept. If you aren’t involved with cosmetics, you may not know of Mary Kay by name. But you may have heard of the woman who gave out pink Cadillacs to her most successful saleswomen.

Some years ago, I was fortunate to be selected by the Direct Selling Association as one of a group of about twenty professors from all over the country to visit Mary Kay and her company. We attended one of her annual sales meetings in Dallas, Texas. About 30,000 women attend these meetings each year, and it was a tremendous, motivating, and exciting experience.

To lead several hundred thousand saleswomen successfully, you have to be one heck of leader. Mary Kay fit that category. She felt that making others feel important was so critical to the success of her business that she crafted a special technique to help her to do this. What was Mary Kay’s secret? Simply this. She imagined that every person she saw had a sign on his or her head. The sign read: “Make me feel important.” Mary Kay did everything she could to obey the sign’s request.

As a leader, if you want to motivate followship, the rule number one is this: if you want people to follow you, make them feel important. And by the way, this is especially important if you are the leader of one of those temporary teams I referred to earlier.

Promote Your Vision

Leaders are not caretakers. They must have some idea as to where they want to go. It doesn’t make any difference whether you are leader of a large corporation of thousands of people, a softball team, or a small informal group. If you don’t have any idea of where you are going, you can’t get there. And neither can anyone else, so vision is critical to developing and maintaining followship.

Professors Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus of the University of Southern California interviewed ninety leaders, including sixty successful CEOs and thirty outstanding leaders from the public sector. All ninety leaders had a well thought through vision of where they wanted their organizations to go. Bennis and Nanus termed the concern that these leaders had for their visions “unparalleled.” Said Bennis and Nanus in their book, Leaders: “Their visions or intentions are compelling and pull people toward them.”William G. McGowan, founder and former CEO of the billion dollar MCI Communications Corporation was the man who cracked the long-distance monopoly of American Telephone and Telegraph Company. McGowan maintained, “People don’t come to MCI for security. They come to be challenged, to be part of something new.”Business Week calls Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft Corporation,  the “Visionary-in-Chief.” In an interview with Business Week editors, Gates articulated a new vision for Microsoft: “Giving people the people the power to do what they want, where and when they want, on any device.”[5People are attracted to a leader’s vision and future goals because they recognize that through them, they and the organization can become permanently better.

Vision is clearly pretty important. But having an objective of where you want the organization to go is only half the action you must take. The other half is to insure that others know what your vision is. By communicating your vision you get a consensus among those you lead.President John Young of Hewlett-Packard said: “Successful companies have a consensus from top to bottom on a set of overall goals. The most brilliant management strategy will fail if that consensus is missing.”6James E. Buerger, publisher of Travelhost National magazine set up his own printing plant by following this principle. He had just 45 days after ordering a press to raise $100,000, set up his equipment, get trained operators, and find a building to put everything in to. He did it by communicating his goals effectively after setting them. According to Buerger, “A secret goal cannot benefit from the participation and force of others. A well-defined goal, shared with others and sparked with enthusiasm, will draw energy and forces that cannot be measured or suppressed.”7

If you have a vision and communicate it to others, you will frequently succeed even though the odds are against you.


You Can Promote Your Vision Anywhere

Colonel Julian Ewell commanding the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment reached Bastogne, Belgium on the night of December 18, 1944. Two days earlier, the Germans had begun their Ardennes campaign. This was the Germans last major offensive of World War II, and history tells us it was a very close thing. Ewell arrived with only one battalion of less than a thousand men. Higher headquarters couldn’t tell him the enemy’s situation…the friendly situation…nothing. But Ewell had a vision and he communicated it to his men despite the fact that he knew he was badly outnumbered “We’re going to attack the Germans,” he announced. They did. In so doing, they stopped the German 27th Panzer Corps of more than 30,000 troops dead in its tracks. It forced Hitler to change his Ardennes plan and may have altered the course of World War II.8Roger Ailes, a communications consultant who consulted for a number of CEOs and presidential candidates maintained that,”…the essence of charisma is showing your commitment to an idea or goal.” 9 Of course showing commitment to an idea or goal is the same as vision. And behavioral scientists have found a close correlation between communicating vision and being perceived as charismatic.

Martin Luther King one of the most charismatic leaders of our time said, “I have a dream.” And what is a dream other than a vision of the way the leader knows things can be.

If you want others to follow you, you must have a vision too…and you must communicate it to others.


Treat Others As You Would Be Treated Yourself And They Will Follow Your Lead

Both the Old and New Testaments tell us to treat others as we want to be treated ourselves. You may have thought this concept has application only in religion or the practice of ethical conduct. The truth is it also has a great deal to do with good leadership. Why? Because people do not willingly follow leaders who are unconcerned with how they are treated. Mary Kay Ash called this her “Golden Rule System of Management.” She not only practiced it herself, but recommended it to everyone who leads. After all, what makes you so special? Do you think that you are so much better than others that you are to be treated differently? If you do, better change your way of thinking, or you may never get people to follow you.

Move Over Scrooge, Your day is Done

Charles Dickens’ famous story, “A Christmas Carol,” featured Scrooge, who cared little for the personal problems of his employees, specifically one Bob Crachett. By Scrooge calculations, he was paying Crachett a fair wage.  So what did he have to complain about? Thus ended his responsibilities— at least according to Scrooge.Those days are gone. Many corporate leaders today have discovered that it is just good leadership to treat family issues as strategic business issues, and to give the welfare of their employee’s families a major priority.


At First Tennessee National Corporation, CEO Ralph Horn did just that. Horn dumped the old work rules and let employees figure out which schedules worked best from a family viewpoint. Then, he added a host of new programs to help the families of his employees. He sent his 1000 managers to three and a half days of training to educate them and get them on board. Results? Productivity and customer service soared. According to First Tennessee, high retention rates contributed to a 55% profit gain in two years.10


What We Learned From The Largest Leadership Study Ever Done

During World War II, the U.S. Army gathered together sixty-one of the greatest authorities in the field of psychology to research and publish a special study. They came from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Harvard, Yale, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania and many others were represented. When they were done, their research was published under the title of Psychology for the Fighting Man.

One of their studies was especially unique. For the first time in the history of armies, enlisted soldiers were interviewed about what they thought about good leadership. Want to know what these thousands of soldiers thought made good leaders? The number one factor by frequency of response was “competence.” The good officer was expected to know his stuff.

Actually, that response was pretty much expected. What was not expected had to do with the next fourteen most frequently cited factors. Listen to this. Of the next fourteen most frequent responses to the question what makes a good leader, the second, fourth, sixth, and seventh all had to do with treatment. These were:

n     Interest in the welfare of the soldier  (second)

n     Patience and ability to make things clear (fourth)

n     Doesn’t boss you around without reason (sixth)

n     Tells you when you did a good job (seventh)

The soldiers interviewed gave these responses more frequently than “physical strength” (eighth), “good education” (ninth), or even “guts” (eleventh).11

The Armed Forces Officer, a book on leadership written for officers in all of our armed services says:

“Though it has been said before, even so, it can be said again: It is a paramount and overriding responsibility of every officer to take care of his men before caring for himself….It is a cardinal principle!…If an officer is on a tour with an enlisted man, he takes care that the man is accommodated as to food, shelter, medical treatment or other prime needs, before satisfying his own wants; if that means that the last meal or the last bed is gone, his duty is to get along the hard way.”12


We had a saying at West Point that a leader should be “hard, but fair.” So if you want others to follow you, treat them fairly. Treat them as you would like to be treated yourself, and put the welfare of those you lead before your own welfare.


Take Responsibility for Your Actions And Admit Your Mistakes

As a leader, you will be taking the responsibility for attaining an objective. That objective may be one set by a higher organization than the one you are in. It could be an objective set by the followers you lead. Or it could be an objective you set. Who sets the objective is unimportant.

The size of the group isn’t important either. It could be a group of hundreds of thousands, or it could be you and one other person. Once you take on the leadership of a group, you and you alone are responsible for reaching the objective.

You can delegate authority to do certain tasks to others that you lead. There is no way that you can delegate responsibility. It doesn’t even make any difference whether those that follow you perform well or perform poorly, or even carry out instructions you have given them. You are still responsible. Of course, you should take responsibility and admit your mistakes. It’s the right thing to do. Beyond being the right thing, it is the only thing to do if you want to be a leader. Do, and those you lead will give you their trust and follow you anywhere. Fail to do this and you will not be a leader for very long.

Andrew S. Grove was formerly Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Intel Corporation. This company built largely through the efforts of Grove is not only a “Fortune 500” company. When Grove was CEO, Intel Corporation was listed in The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. Yet, Fortune magazine also called Andy Grove one of the ten toughest bosses in America to work for. What does Grove say about taking responsibility and admitting mistakes? Let’s listen to Andy Grove, himself.

“All of us in management (and in teaching, government, even parenting) – men and women, young or old – worry about losing hard-won respect by admitting our mistakes. Yet, in reality, admitting mistakes is a sign of strength, maturity, and fairness.”13


A Man Doesn’t Get Hired Because He Has Made No Mistakes

In the early days of the Dow Chemical Company, a man approached founder Herbert H. Dow to ask for a job he had heard about. He went over his qualifications in some detail. He had one big selling point that he stressed again and again. This was that he had never, under any circumstances, ever made a mistake at work. Dow finally interrupted his presentation. “We have three thousand people working here, and on the average, they make three thousand mistakes each and every day. I couldn’t insult them by hiring somebody perfect.”14



Why Did Men Follow Robert E. Lee?

Robert E. Lee is probably the most beloved military leader in U.S. history. Not only to the day of his death, but until years afterward, those who knew him or served under him revered his name. Even his former enemies honored him and flocked to visit him after the Civil War. Here he was, the most notorious defeated enemy general of the Confederacy. And yet company presidents from his former enemy in the north offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars if he would associate with their companies. He turned them all down. Instead he accepted a post as president of Washington College in Virginia with only 40 students at a salary of $1500 a year.

Lee had not won the war. He had been forced to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant. The best chance that the Confederacy had to win the Civil War was the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. Lee lost that decisive battle.

Sure, Lee had plenty of opportunities for excuses, plenty of bad luck and poor performance by some of his generals on which to blame his loss.

Lee’s famous “strong right arm”, “Stonewall” Jackson had been killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville a few months earlier. His brilliant young cavalry leader, Jeb Stuart went off on his own and didn’t appear on the battlefield until the last day. As a result, Lee had very little intelligence about the Union forces he faced. Lieutenant General Ewell who commanded part of Jackson’s old corps could have won the battle for Lee the first day. All he had to do was to occupy a deserted, but strategically important hill. He failed to do so.

Lee’s second in command, General “Old Pete” Longstreet, strongly opposed a charge ordered by Lee to be made by one of his divisions commanded by Major General George Pickett. As a result Longstreet failed to give Pickett positive orders which would inspire confidence. Preparations took longer than they should have. The charge was not coordinated with a diversionary attack as previously planned.

Pickett’s troops were fully exposed to the murderous effect of enemy guns and direct fire. Incredibly brave, they kept going. In the end, only a few hundred of his thousands of troops even managed to reach Union lines. Of the 13,000 Confederates who made the charge, more than 7,000 were left dead or wounded in “no man’s land” between the two lines.

With the battle clearly lost, and the remnants of Pickett’s men returning to the Confederate lines, it was Lee that went out to meet the survivors.

“It was all my fault and no one else’s,” he said. “You did your best, but it was I who failed you.”

In tears, these battle weary soldiers shouted: “No! No! You didn’t fail, general. It was us.” “Let us go again,” they shouted.

Robert E. Lee always took responsibility for his actions. And his men loved him for it and fought all the harder. Remember, the Battle of Gettysburg was in early July of 1863. Lee didn’t surrender his army at Appomattox Court House until April of 1865…almost two years later.

Four Action Steps To Get People To Follow You

1. Make others feel important. People will follow you when you make them feel important, not when you make you feel important.

2. Promote your vision. No one will follow you simply because you decide you want to lead. You have to have a clear idea of where you want to take the group … than you must promote it to your group and convince them that your goal is worthwhile.

3. Treat others as you would be treated yourself. This is so basic, why don’t we do it more often? After all, would you want to follow someone who treated you poorly? Don’t you prefer to follow leaders who have concern for you and your feelings and treat you well? So do those who would follow you.

4. Take responsibility for your actions and those of your group. Admit your mistakes. You are responsible for everything the members of your group do or fail to do. So when things go wrong, don’t forget to accept this responsibility. If you try to foist this responsibility off on others, you are no longer the leader.


*Adapted from Cohen, William A., The New Art of the Leader (Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall Press, 2000)

1Alf J. Mapp, Jr. Frock Coats and Epaulets (Hamilton Press: New York, 1987) p. 203.

2  Jack L. Mendleson, “Manager Disrespect,” Business Forum (Winter/Spring  1998) p.20.

3 Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). p.28.

4 John Wilke, “McGowan: The Man Who Cracked AT&T,” Business Week (January 21, 1985) p.69

5  Michael Moeller and Kathy Rebello, “Visionary-in-Chief: A Talk with Chairman Bill Gates on the World Beyond Windows,” Business Week (May 17, 1999) pp. 114, 116.

6 Jonathan Carr, “Success as a State of Mind,” Financial Times (February 13, 1984).

 Charles Garfield, Peak Performers (Avon: New York, 1986) pp. 121-122.

8 The Armed Forces Officer, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950). pp. 136-137.

9 Roger Ailes, “The Secret of Charisma,” Success (July/August 1988) p.14

10 Kith H. Hammonds, “Balancing Work and Family,” Business Week (September 16, 1996)p.74.

11 Committee of the National Research Council with the collaboration of Science Service, Psychology for the Fighting Man, (Washington,D.C./New York: Infantry Journal/Penguin Books, 1944) pp.306-307.

12 The Armed Forces Officer (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950)pp.28-29

13 Andrew S. Grove, One-On-One With Andy Grove (G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1987) p. 60.

14 Peter Fay, The Book of  Business Anecdotes (New York: Facts on File, 1988) p. 166.




For the benefit of the flowers, we water the thorns, too.

                                                                                        – Jewish saying

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