I once worked for a multi-national company who organised an annual 3-day conference aimed at the 100 most senior employees of the company out of some 3,000. At great expense in time and money, we met, presented our success stories, congratulated one another, secretly envied colleagues successes, and participated in activities designed to foster team spirit. On the whole, these meetings were generally good networking events and a relief for a few days from everyday work pressures.

On one occasion, a particular segment struck many of us as odd; it was a presentation by one of the organisers on ‘Followship’; yes, you read it right, ‘Followship’. I had never come across that term before; or since, as a matter of fact. The presenter preached the virtues of not acting as a leader. She urged us to let go of our innate desire to lead, set aside our strong will and instinct to command but instead, follow someone else’s instructions without questioning. She didn’t say who that someone else might be.

Although the event I describe above had taken place over 20 years ago, it somehow stuck in my memory like an unwanted tattoo on the back of your hand; you just cannot ignore it for any length of time, it keeps staring back at you.

I wondered: why would you bring your leadership team together and urge them not to be leaders? Companies spend a great deal of money either acquiring people with proven leadership qualities or train budding young Turks to become the future leaders. So, to urge them not to demonstrate the very qualities you have been nurturing has to be counter-intuitive at best, and plain dumb at worst.

So, giving the first possibility of counter-intuitiveness a go, I decided to think of when a leader should deliberately follow and not lead. It didn’t take long to find examples. There are, of course, thousands and thousands of daily circumstances of leaders having to follow orders and not issue them. But this has to be looked at in the right context. Even historically, famous leaders such as Mark Antony, Dwight Eisenhower, Erwin Rommel all took orders from people above them in the chain of command. All company CEO’s have higher authorities above them in the shape of either Chairmen or boards of directors. So, taking orders from others is ingrained in all of us and accepted as a normal code of conduct for running organisations from companies to entire countries; it’s called ‘the system’.

This code of conduct is occasionally broken by a few mavericks, to be kind to them, or total psychopaths, to be more accurate. This type of person firmly believes they are above everyone and any system. They can only see one true way of running anything, which is their way, never to be questioned or challenged. Apart from the out and out notorious dictators, there is evidence to suggest that the less murderous psychopaths tend to end up as business leaders, often running successful companies. They are charming, charismatic, never wrong, ruthless, determined and unforgiving in the way they treat people they come in contact with.

I am sure you have come across or read about such corporate psychopaths. From my personal experience, I once worked for a man whose idea of a brainstorm was to bring a bunch of us together and storm our brains with a single idea he had to get us not just to accept it, because he was not worried about our acceptance, but rather to salute it or better still, worship it. He played with our psychology on one occasion by urging us to go ahead and criticize his idea but, when some of us foolishly did so, he declared menacingly: ‘okay, it is just an idea at this stage but, let’s not forget whose idea it is.’ We all very quickly loved his egregious idea after that.

Back to the more balanced types who are probably the majority of us, we accept that leaders occasionally find themselves led and like it or not, they accept it. A leader of any country when there is a clear and present danger to his/her life, the security people take charge of the situation and give orders to the ‘commander in chief’ and he/she follows these orders without hesitation. Industry leaders answer the call of the state by accepting temporary or permanent positions in government at relatively lower ranks than the positions they attained in the world of commerce. Ex-government ministers often travel in the opposite direction after retirement from politics and find themselves in lesser positions too, albeit at a much better pay than they ever attained in government. That’s the system; leaders must occasionally follow.

So, back to the ‘Followship’ talk. Have I missed something here? Did she have a deeper meaning to communicate to us? Shouldn’t I take another look, consider the whole thing from another angle, think laterally, try and be more creative in my analysis of what was the deeper meaning hidden in that talk.

Then it struck me, the answer was straightforward: there was no deeper meaning behind that talk; she was stating the obvious that leaders must occasionally follow; that’s it, pure and simple. My digging for deeper truth was not necessary after all.

Which reminds me of the wonderful Winnie The Pooh when one morning he opened the cupboard looking for honey, which he didn’t have, but stubbornly, he continued searching anyway. In the immortal words of the story creator A.A. Milne describing Winnie’s dilemma: “And the more he looked, the more it wasn’t there”.