What's the Value in Following Rather Than Leading?

April 2, 2010 //

By John Esterle

How do we make following sexy? This question has stayed with me since Katherine Fulton, President of The Monitor Institute, posed it a few days ago at the Annual Meeting of Northern California Grantmakers. It probably stuck because I think it’s an important question to address if more foundations are to move in the kind of collaborative, networked ways Fulton advocated.

If we’re honest, when many of us (I include myself here) think of collaboration we tend to think in terms of getting others to support what we’re doing: our idea, our initiative, our grantee. Our initial orientation isn’t usually the other way around. Yet, as funders, if we’re to operate cooperatively with the kind of “ecosystem” understanding and approach Fulton recommended we need to be far more open to following others’ leads, more open to seeing how we fit within a system of giving and willing to follow (or fill gaps) if that’s what the situation calls for.

Exploring how to successfully navigate the changing context for philanthropy, a context quite different from what has gone before, Fulton highlighted the importance of trust, humility, and deep listening. These qualities mapped across a range of themes Fulton raised, from moving beyond “either/or” to “both/and” frames, to learning to creatively balance tensions, to taking risks and learning from mistakes, to pushing beyond our comfort zones, to engaging with diversity of all kinds. And that map led me back to thinking about TWI, the work of our grantees, and the central role trust, humility, and deep listening play in dialogue.

So, as I continue to mull over how to make following sexy, other questions spring to mind. What’s the relationship between leading and following? How does that relationship change depending on context? Depending on the ecosystem we see ourselves operating in? In a networked world, are traditional notions of leading and following becoming increasingly cumbersome? And finally, when we think of individual or organizational leaders how many model qualities of trust, humility, and deep listening?


  1. Christopher on April 19, 2010 at 8:53 am

    hi John, there seem to be more nonprofit initiatives that are to some degree collaborative in bent, but in ways that do not gainsay the element of competitiveness (which too often gets a bad rap) or gloss over their distinctions. The Change Handbook has a great section on 'collaborative loops,' noting that many groups find matrices of convergence, and cooperate on a range of tasks that benefit them all more or less equally. According to Dick and Emily Axelrod, "The Collaborative Loops process brings dissimilar project teams together in a workshop setting to develop their own strategies.Rather than relying on a set methodology, people are freed to develop their own strategies. By providing frameworks and principles, participants are then able to use their own experience to create more effective change" — all the while widening "the circle of involvement," forging stronger connections, and cultivating strong "communities for action." This intriguing approach, which I've introduced to my students in the 'Leading Change' class I teach under the auspices of the Leadership and American Studies program at Christopher Newport University, would seem to make of all involved decided 'change leaders' who embrace a democracy of approaches to public problem-solving (and as a result, strengthening democracy itself), and further making each of them more distinctly a leader, effacing the need for any sort of 'follower' tag. Just a thought!
    cheers, Chris

  2. eekim on May 9, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Great post, John. I had the opportunity to explore this question with several other folks at a Monitor Institute event in March, which resulted in the idea for a Smart Money Award. We've continued to work on the project, and we'd welcome your participation and ideas. Check out our project wiki, and let me know if you have any questions!

  3. The Whitman Institute on May 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm


    Thanks for your feedback! I was pleased to follow your links and see what's up. I like how your group ran with the idea of "followership" and will follow where you go this — including getting back to you with any questions and ideas I have going forward.


    You left a comment ages ago so by now you've probably given up on having me acknowledge it. In any case, thanks for your comments. The relationship between collaboration and competition is a nuanced one as you suggest. The feedback loop notion sounds intriguing and I also like the notion of community leadership. I do wonder about our use of language in all of this and continue to be struck by just how many different meanings we can put under the umbrella of leadership.

    Thanks again to both of you.


  4. Robert on May 13, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    John: Very provocative set of questions. I think we have to grapple with the fact that leading — true leading — is done only by a very few. (Same idea applies to entrepreneurs: only a small subset of the large number of people "trained" as entrepreneurs in fact will launch and successfully lead a social or commercial venture.)

    So, for funders, a major question becomes: does the innovation/progress we seek to identify, lift up and scale usually come from within philanthropy? Or, are leaders of philanthropic work, in fact, our grantees, whose bold and mold-breaking breakthroughs often point us in different directions?

    As a (former) funder, I came to feel that I was led by my foundation's grantees, much more than by philanthropy partners. But within the funder world, we tend to recognize ourselves in this role, and not those working at the community level.

    Interesting to see how the leader/follower discussion develops. Thanks for starting the thread.

  5. The Whitman Institute on May 13, 2010 at 4:27 pm


    Thanks back at you for your thoughtful post. I really like how you frame your major question about funders and grantees. Your comment about how funders tend to see themselves also resonates with me. I often think along those lines when I observe how much strategic planning goes on within philanthropy and the degree to which it is rooted in the self-conceptions around innovation and leadership you allude to.

    Also, given how broad a term leadership can be, I'd be curious to hear more about what you mean by "true leadership" and whether that's strictly the province of individuals or whether groups or communities can show true leadership as well.

    Again, thanks for contributing to the conversation!