“They say you should lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
So began an essay I once wrote for a college entrance exam to a very prestigious university. I was rejected, and they claimed it was for my less-than-perfect grades, but I don’t doubt that essay played its part. As a seventeen-year-old, I was ill-equipped to state the message well, but it’s a message that I live by, and it’s a message that bears repeating:
If you must lead,
Or get out of the way,
Choose to get out of the way.
Followers, by their very definition, are sheep. They follow the herd, they follow the pack, they follow the crowd, and they don’t make real decisions for themselves. They go where the leader says, where the wind blows, where they are ordered to go, and they are trapped by their inability to choose a path of their own.
Much of society is composed of followers.
Society places high value on leaders, though. We revere them and place them on pedestals. We carve statues of them, and tell our children to become like them.
Only a very few people in society are leaders.
But no-one should ever want to be a leader. A leader is beholden to the needs of the herd. A leader is responsible for the herd. The followers rise and fall by the leader’s every decision because they have little ability to make decisions of their own.
And a leader is only a leader so long as he has followers. The moment his leadership fails — and all leadership must eventually experience a failure — his herd will change allegiances. They will find someone else to make their decisions for them. And then the failed leader is neither a leader nor a follower: He is little more than refuse — discarded, ignored, and forgotten.
So a leader has no choice but to make decisions that aren’t necessarily the best for the herd but rather decisions that ensure he remains a leader. A leader’s decisions are driven by the singular goal of staying the leader of the herd, and by that he has no true choice. A leader is as trapped as his followers, if not moreso.
There is another way.
You can get out of the way.
Almost nobody chooses to go their own way.
When the leader and his herd travels on the road from south to north, you can forge a path heading east to the rising sun or west to adventure. When the leader and his herd marches onward, you can stop to smell the roses. When the leader and the herd say, “This is the way things must be done if you are going to stay with us,” you can leave them and do things that they could never conceive of.
And these people — the people who go their own way, who follow their own principles to the very end — these are the people who truly change the world.
Copernicus said the earth revolved around the sun, and he was marked a heretic. Einstein said that time could flex and bend, and he was ridiculed. Rosa Parks did not move in the bus, and she was lambasted. Ghandi sat quietly, and he was jailed again and again. And all of them caused revolutions.
They followed their souls, and they changed the world. And others eventually followed, but not because these people were leaders: Others followed because they were going in a direction that even the herd could eventually see was better than the direction the leadership offered. But these peoples’ decision to ignore the herd, to follow their soul to success or failure or joy or sorrow or riches or ruin, that choice remained primary. Whether in front of a million people or zero, these people went the direction their souls told them they must at all costs go.
So when you are told to “lead, follow, or get out of the way,” you do have a choice. You can join the herd as its leader, and be trapped. You can join the herd as its follower and be trapped. Or you can go your own way. You can be the odd one out, the strange one that they don’t understand, the one who says the things no-one else dares say, the one who goes where none of the others dare tread. And you can change the world.
It’s up to you. I know which I choose.