I felt a bit uncomfortable strolling to the library lawn here at the University of Illinois at Springfield. It was September 14, the national day of prayer and remembrance, and I'm not used to gathering with colleagues for a solemn service. I didn't know what to expect. I wasn't sure of my role.
I realized later that, in this context, I am a follower, along with millions of others. It's a role that many are not accustomed to. There are thousands of books on leadership, Garry Wills once wrote, but none on followership.
Wills wrote in Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders that we have many leaders today, but we lack sufficient followers. Followers do not submit to a leader, he explained, but "join him or her in pursuit of [a] goal." That happens when a leader articulates a vision and a goal, and followers assent. Without a shared goal, without willing followers, there are no leaders.
On the Springfield campus, while another service was taking place at the Statehouse, UIS Chancellor Richard Ringeisen praised the university community for remaining calm in the first days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Leading by example, he spoke calmly for only a few minutes after a 25-foot by 30-foot American flag, borrowed from the Elks, was rolled out from the roof of the library building. The crowd clapped softly at the sight of the flag, and spontaneously sang "America the Beautiful" when the 10-minute observance ended.
In extraordinary times, leaders search for words and plans of action to nudge people in directions they might not want to go. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, warned that terrorism is the "new evil." With a new enemy, then, our response must be different.
But followership, too, is not a passive act. Followers must cue their leaders that they are listening. They must give them the time and freedom to develop plans of action. That doesn't mean they must agree with everything leaders do and say. Sometimes, as Robert Kennedy once said, we have a duty to dissent. But many times, our role is to consent. Silence or noisy disagreements in such circumstances point to a failure of followership.
Following means risking discomfort. It means standing with others on a university lawn, in the Daley Plaza or in a mosque. It means seeing value in being together, and expressing consent to noble visions, voices of reason and enduring values. It means letting good leaders lead. It means acknowledging humbly that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Followership in extraordinary times is a choice, an active, essential democratic choice.
Illinois Issues, October 2001