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You Do Not Have to Be a Leader

By Eva Shang

“What Makes a Leader?”“How Can We Foster Leadership in Students?”“Seven Traits That All Successful Leaders Have.”No matter what the headline, the message remains the same: leaders are the only ones who count.

Along with “social media,” “innovation,” and “changes in technology,” “leadership” has become a buzzword associated with wealth, success, and accomplishment of near-universal interest. In fact, as a social media intern this past summer, I was told, “Put the word ‘leadership’ in the headline. That’s what gets people to click.” Why? Because everyone wants to learn how to be a leader, even though leaders are not necessarily what the world needs.

As Harvard students, we’re subjected to a uniquely intense pressure to exemplify the leadership that our parents, teachers, and even our friends seem to expect of us. We are saddled with the responsibility that comes with going to an institution known for producing graduates—and dropouts—like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and seven US presidents. Many feel an obligation to at least strive to follow in their footsteps. After all, we went to Harvard—if we don’t at least lead in our chosen field, we’ve failed. To be a leader is to make a difference. To make a difference is what it means to succeed. Right?

Wrong. Upon closer examination, the seemingly obvious tie between being a leader and making a difference is not nearly so clear-cut. Left out of the oft-repeated leadership narrative is the fact that every group is composed of both leaders and followers—and both are vital for success. By brushing over the contributions of followers, we create only a generation of self-important leaders-to-be, all desperately vying for control in their need to live up to expectations of leadership.

In fact, the recent government shutdown in Washington, D.C., so often billed as a “crisis in leadership,” could rather be a crisis in followership: A situation in which everyone felt that they should be acting as a leader, while failing to accept that, sometimes, being a follower can advance the greater good.

In reality, every change in human history was predicated on a collaborative effort between leadership and followership. Rome was not erected by kings. The Nobel Peace Prize this year was awarded to the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—not an individual, but a group that accomplished the most to advance world peace. Even the Civil Rights movement could not have succeeded without the hard work of on-the-ground activists as well as the revered figureheads. Here at Harvard, things aren’t all that different. For example, final projects in the popular introductory computer science course CS50 are products of collaboration between students and teaching fellows and staff—innovative solutions to social problems that rely on both leaders and followers.

As poet Bertolt Brecht laments in his poem, A Worker Reads History, “Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings. Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?” Whether recorded or not, followers shaped history as much as leaders did.

Change comes from working together to create a larger movement. Everyone wants to be a CEO and a leader and the “face of the movement,” the one who goes down in history books as truly remarkable. But true change is never accomplished alone. Rosa Parks was merely a representative of the NAACP, a fighter in a larger movement for change. Change comes from teamwork, from a web of effort rather than a single person.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Barbara Kellerman, author of the book Followership, believes that the democratizing forces of technology and globalization are flattening any remaining hierarchies. In an interview, Kellerman said, “It should not be a universe of leaders. It should be a universe of global citizens.” If we want to cultivate a world of global citizens, intent not on the personal glory associated with being the “leader,” we must recognize the value of being a follower. Both leaders and followers are fluid categories that should allow for shifting of power between the two. If the ultimate goal is a better world, maybe it should not matter so much who is doing the leading.

You do not have to be a leader to matter. If you are truly passionate about making a difference, perhaps it is time to let go of the delusion that you must be a leader. Perhaps it is time to learn the value of following.

YingYing Shang ’17 is a Crimson editorial comper in Canaday Hall.

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