How To Get Followers To Become Leaders [Advice From The Experts]

There are two types of people in this world: Leaders, and everyone else. A good leader understands this, but a great leader seeks to change it. After all, unless you’re intent on micro-managing every facet of your training company, you need to know you have the right people in the right roles, actively pursuing the best course of action to grow your business, rather than meekly agreeing with your every command.

'You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man's initiative and independence.' Abraham Lincoln

A cursory study of the world’s most famous leaders – for instance, Mandela, MLK, Nelson, Churchill – shows us that change drives and dominates every one of them. Changing habits, changing methods, changing hearts and minds. But, most importantly, changing followers into leaders.

‘Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.’ Jack Welch

First, let’s consider the different types of followers, and you can loosely categorise them into three subsets:

  • The devoted
  • The disaffected
  • The conformist

The devoted are emotionally attached staff that you might typify as ‘fans’ of your business; the disaffected are those just ‘going with the flow’ – more often than not they’ve become disengaged with the business and are now following the pay cheque above all else. The conformist, on the other hand, can be characterised as ‘meek’, too scared to say anything other than ‘yes’.

None of these, alone, have the capacity to bring greater success to your training organisation. Yet each of these follower-types has the potential to become leaders, to not simply serve your vision, but to enhance your operations. Developing followers into genuine leaders requires a great deal of introspection; taking a long, hard and deeply objective look at yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself three questions – and answer them honestly:

  • What is my personal brand? And how is that applied, day-to-day?
  • Do I have the capacity to connect with and inspire my team?
  • Can I command respect through positive means?
  • Am I knowledgeable about the subjects in which I lead?

‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.’ John F. Kennedy

Educational books and journals on shelf in library

It’s a journey of self-assessment and discovery that forms the basis of understanding how to – on a fundamental level, isn’t that learning and development are really all about, whether you’re improving yourself, your customers, or your staff? Or, as Harvey Firestone once said, ‘The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.’

It all starts with encouragement.

‘Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish.’ Sam Walton

For the devoted among your team, this is relatively easy, since they’re already invested in the trajectory of your company. The biggest issue with your devoted followers is that they’re almost always entirely dependent on you and your leadership skills – they’ve bought into both the company’s vision as well as yours – and so need a serious push to operate on an individual basis. Start slow and small, and build up their independence over an acceptable period of time. Monitor where necessary.

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Encouragement, too, is vital to engage the conformists – these are followers who are, frankly, too scared to pipe up. They’re terrified of making mistakes, of costing the business money and frustrating the will of superiors. Fine and genuine concerns, in the main, but ultimately debilitating. As keen observers, they’re likely to be chockful of ideas to boost your business but are too timid to draw attention to either their ideas or themselves. Encouraging them, then, acts as a pseudo-confidence boost; a green light that allows them to forge a path within the company.

Encouragement also plays a key role in engaging the disaffected. These employees are not, as lesser leaders may believe, a ‘lost cause’. And it’s often the case that such leaders disregard them as not worth investing time in. That, in turn, serves only to further alienate the disaffected employee, resulting in a lose-lose situation that’s difficult to remedy without drastic action. Here, you need to define why they’ve ‘switched off’ and detached themselves from their role and the wider business. Very often this is due to a total lack of purpose within an organisation.

Responsibility must, then, necessarily become the next focus – something that the disaffected respond very well to, but something all employees secretly desire.

‘The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.’ Theodore Roosevelt

Coloured paper boats

Offering purpose and direction, when correctly deployed, responsibility has the power motivate and create genuine success. Probably one of the most famous examples of this is the case of nuclear submarine captain David Marquet. Here was a man who made a point of ‘pushing down’ authority, encouraging personal responsibility to such an extent that he turned the worst submarine in the US Navy’s fleet into the finest of the lot.

To do so, he positively ceded control – something many managers struggle with, but true leaders embrace. As such, he instituted what he termed ‘deliberate action’. That is, all crew stated what they intended to do prior to doing it, while others were encouraged to point out if there were any potential issues. That’s what responsibility looks like. Marquet understood that he didn’t have all the answers and that those ‘at the coal face’, as it were, were far more likely to understand the best course of action relative to their role. Your followers, regardless of type, will be similarly placed – they’re seeing the details of the bigger picture you’re focused on. Recognising that is crucial if you’re to turn them into leaders.

For that to occur – and to be genuinely effective – you need to create and communicate your vision.

‘The leader has to be practical and a realist yet must talk the language of the visionary and the idealist.’ Eric Hoffer

By offering up a true and passionate vision for your training business, you engage all those who follow. It’s a rallying point, an attainable achievement that staff company-wide can get behind, and –importantly – take a departmental lead on delivering.

No vision means no direction means no purpose. And without purpose, it’s impossible for lower-level staff to recognise what you want to change within the business, or even why it needs to change. Your company vision opens up a path and offers a clear end-goal, but it does not necessarily mean you have to take each employee by the hand and lead them to the light. Simply by offering a basic direction, you’ll find followers will naturally lead the way. They know what’s expected of them, and they know – it’s up to them to take you there.

Let’s say you want to increase online course bookings. That’s all – a quick and easy goal; an easily understandable vision. You’re smart enough to see that internet-based sales are where it’s at, and now your IT manager can start looking into the technicalities of bringing course bookings online. Your training manager is able to study the logistical impact and, based on knowledge of what your learners want, can ensure the online customer experience is perfect. Meanwhile, your finance team can begin integrating their existing software with the online course booker.

You haven’t really done anything here. You’ve set a goal, communicated a vision, and given permission for the team to develop and deploy. They’re taking the initiative themselves.

And that’s because strong leaders are the real followers.

‘I must follow the people. Am I not their leader.’ Benjamin Disraeli


The greatest leaders of our time intuitively knew that to effectively lead, they must naturally follow; acting more as a guiding hand in the development of others, not simply accepting their ideas but learning from them. In essence, it’s a case of the student becoming the master – and should be welcomed as such.

This is often the downfall of weaker leaders and managers. Ego blinds them, clouding their judgement. They own their fiefdom, and they resent any infringement of it (or, indeed, any fellow team member offering ideas superior to their own). Strong leaders, on the other hand, appreciate that leadership has little to do with position within a company, and encourage others to follow the same thought-processes they have themselves – specifically, ‘Is there a better way to run my training business? And how do we do it?’

The result? You’ve succeeded in inspiring behavioural change among your followers, trusting them to control or direct areas where an organisation requires change, based on their skills and experience – which, after all, is what you were seeking to institute in the first place.

Or, in the words of Einsenhower: ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.’

‘A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.’ Lao Tzu

For more insights, download the smart guide to growing your training business here. 

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