There is an Arab proverb that says, “He who knows not and knows not that he knows knot is a fool, shun him. He who knows not and knows that he knows not is simple, teach him. He who knows and knows not that he knows, is asleep, wake him. He who knows and knows that he knows is wise, follow him.”
As I was growing up, in my family organization, my mother and father and other older siblings were the leaders I knew and I was always following what they said. When I attended school, teachers and headmasters were my leaders. In my community, sub-chiefs and chiefs were my leaders. As much as I was following all these categories of leaders, I was not necessarily doing it voluntarily. For example, my father built for us a grass-thatched house, which we boarded for free but he was in control. He told me when to get up, and when to come home. I lived by his rules. In exchange, I got free meals and a roof over my head for becoming an ardent follower for his programme.
Having said that I never necessarily followed my parents, my teachers or local administrators voluntarily, then one may ask a fundamental question; ‘How does one become a leader that people will follow voluntarily? ‘In my view, to lead anyone anywhere or to get someone to follow you, you must influence and inspire him or her.
Most parents do not inspire their children; they manipulate them or order them to do things. They threaten or harass to try to control them and often fail. If you want to inspire your children to read, for example, then you must first develop a passion for books and if they see you spending long hours reading instead of watching television, they may be inspired to read. Sociologists tell us that even the most introverted individual will influence ten thousand other people during his or her lifetime. To be able to influence and attract followers, then you must possess certain soft attributes.
First of all, you must be totally honest and generous to the people that you lead. Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people. Unfortunately however, some leaders, particularly political leaders use selective honesty to gain followers. They believe that an act of kindness, generosity or honesty is the most powerful form of distraction because it disarms a potential follower’s suspicion. Any leader who uses this tactic must know that it will backfire because if followers see through it then disappointed feelings of gratitude and warmth will become the most violent hatred and distrust and consequently lose the followers. No wonder many leaders are not re-elected back to their leadership positions. Therefore do not use selective honesty to distract people you want to deceive so that you have time and space to do something they won’t notice. Instead be sincere and absolutely honest if you have to get a genuine following.
Secondly, appeal to people’s self-interest. Alfred Adler said,” It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injuries to others. It is from among such individuals that all human failures spring.” Before any leader gains followers, he or she must realize that self-interest is the lever that will move people. Once you make them see how you can in some way meet their needs or advance their cause, then their resistance to follow you will fall away. Remember that every visionary leader has mastered the practice of connecting deeply to the interest of his followers. You must too refine the art of clarifying your vision for the benefit of your people in a way that fully engages them and stirs them into following you. You must always keep promises and be a person they can truly count on. You need to earn the trust of your people and gain their loyalty.
The third thing is to learn to be consistently compassionate. You must constantly show kindness to the people that you lead and think about ways to show their concern is sincere. To quote the eminent Harvard Psychologist, William James; “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” It doesn’t matter who you are – whether you are a young schoolboy, a young schoolgirl or the toughest corporate manager-every single person on this earth has a burning desire to be treated well. In other words, show people courtesy, consideration, and respect, every single day of the work week and they will follow you. Be kind to the people you lead. Respect and cherish them. This is how the German Philosopher Goethe said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and help them become what they are capable of becoming.”
The fourth thing is to focus on people’s needs to create a following. People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire for offering them a cause; a new faith to follow. Do not manipulate people’s needs to create a cult like following as some politicians do. I say this because some politicians keep their words vague but full of promise; they emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking. They believe that having a large following opens up all sorts of possibilities for deception; not only will their followers worship them; they will also defend them from their enemies and will voluntarily take on the work of enticing others to join their fledging cult. They believe this kind of power will lift them to another realm. But what I am emphasizing in this paragraph is that true leaders do not pursue followers; Followers are attracted to them in search of a lasting solution for their needs. In other words, leadership is a noble privilege given by inspired followers in partnership to accomplish a shared vision.
The fifth point I wish to state is that make sure to use absence to increase respect and honor. In the law of scarcity in the science of economics, I learned that by withdrawing something from the market, you create instant value. In seventeenth century Holland, the royal family wanted to make tulip (a perennial bulbous plant with showy flowers) more than just a beautiful flower – they wanted it to be a kind of status symbol. They made the flower scarce which led to a single flower worth more than its weight in gold.
Napoleon was recognizing the law of absence and presence when he said, “If I am too often seen at the theater, people will cease to notice me.” In fact novelist J.D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon created huge followings by knowing when to disappear. Therefore the more you are seen and heard, the more common you appear. If you are already established in a group or organization where you are a leader, take note that temporary withdrawal from it will make you more talked about, even more admired. You must learn when to leave and avoid micromanaging people or employees. Lean to go on leave regularly instead of sticking around all the time with a premise that in your absence things will go wrong. If you make yourself too available, the aura of power you have created around yourself will wear away. In that case make yourself less accessible and you will increase the value of your presence the consequence of which is large following.
The final point (not necessarily final per se) that I would like to point out is on integrity. Integrity is the heartbeat of leadership and a person who possesses this attribute attracts large followers. Integrity involves even more than honesty. For honesty can involve only a passive acceptance of what is right and what is wrong, while integrity involves an active seeking out of truth both internally and in relation to other people. The leader who has integrity can afford to think clearly and honestly feeling no need to be evasive and vague-with himself or with his followers. He has no need to waste time sweeping dirt under the rug since he has nothing to hide.
As I conclude, I want to state that one of the greatest things that followers want is a leader who values and cherishes them. They want a leader who has the vision to give them a glimpse of a compelling cause they can strive toward so that their daily work becomes meaningful. Therefore, find out how you can help them be wiser, more capable, and more confident of their abilities so they can function on their own and fulfill their destiny. They will then be willing to follow you because you are wise as stated by the Arab proverb above.