What differentiates a leader from a follower? Now this seems like a pretty easy question to answer. A leader is the person others look up to, the person in charge, the one giving the orders. A follower is the one who receives the order and does the task, the one who looks for guidance. So objectively speaking, the qualities of a leader and a follower would be different through and through. A follower does not have the ability to lead, and a leader would never follow. However, Northouse defines leadership as a process by which both the leader and the followers are affected and affect each other (Northouse, 2015 pg 3). This would mean that leaders and followers are not mutually exclusive, they must “co-mingle” in both qualities and goals.
So with that being said, what now differentiates a leader from a follower? Well according to Northouse, it is influence that primarily differentiates the positions. Northouse describes leadership as being a process, as involving influence, as occuring in groups, and as having common goals (Northouse, 2015 pg 3). However, three of those four requirements do not focus on an individual difference between leaders and followers. The only one that focuses on a distinctive difference is influence (or a lack thereof). So it is not incorrect to assume that the defining quality between a leader and a follower is their amount of influence (or lack thereof). This idea implies that with enough influence a follower could become a leader, and vice-versa if a leader was to lose influence he could be relegated to being a follower.
Why is that important? Well Northouse describes the leader-follower relationship as being “two sides of the same coin” (Rost, 1991) (Northouse 2015 pg 4). Workers and leaders must share a common goal, meaning “workers who share a leader’s goals and values and who feel rewarded for performing a job well might be more likely to work extra hours on a project” (Lesson 1: Introduction to Leadership, 2020, pg 7). This statement implies that the workers are the ones who adopt the leader’s goals. While that is true, I prefer to think of it as the leader adopting the mindset of his workers. An effective leader is one who understands the needs and wants of his followers and all leaders have an ethical responsibility to understand those things (Northouse 2015 pg 4). This means that in order to truly be an effective leader, he/she must think like a follower and understand what they hope to achieve. This translates across all forms of leadership, from corporate settings in the 21st century to dictatorships ranging back to the time of kings.
Leaders from all walks of life have defined their places in history. From the kings of yore to the political systems in place today there have been numerous differences in the way leaders choose to lead. However, across the board one thing remains the same, good effective leaders go down in history as having helped their followers while bad ineffective leaders go down in history as having impeded them. The most effective leaders in our history are not those who used their followers to achieve their goals, but rather enabled their followers by understanding their most basic wants and needs.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2020). PSYCH 485 Lesson 1: Introduction to Leadership. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/sp20/22011–17109/toc.html.
Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: theory and practice. Seventh edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc.