Agree? “You Cannot Be a Leader Until You Have Learned to Be a Follower.”

Of his plebe year at West Point, Aldrin notes: “What we were being taught…is that you cannot be a leader until you have learned to be a follower.”

–Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., Return to Earth

Buzz Aldrin is one of the astronauts who made the historic moon landing in the Apollo 11.

Do you agree that in order to lead, you must also know how to follow?

  • Stutteringhand

    I agree with the spirit of the quote, but as a Rebel the wording gives me problems. When I worked as a Supervisor for many years in Residential Treatment Facility for Juvenile Delinquents. I would NEVER have asked anyone that I supervised to do anything that I had not done myself. Working in a place like this, it is impossible to foresee all the situations that could arise. The safety and security of our clients was of primary importance.
    We had a 13 year old client who was in the early stages of pregnancy. That was one of the reasons that she was there. The father was suspected to be a 50 year old man. The girl had refused to identify who the father might be. It was a unique and tragic situation. Anyway, the Doctor who had examined her expected that she would most certainly lose the fetus. The Doctor explained that she could miscarry at anytime and because it was so early in her pregnancy, medical attention would more than likely not be required. She was in our institution because the State had determined that she was CINA, (Child In Need of Assistance), because of the family situation. So we had been ordered by Social Services to preserve the fetus when it happened, so the State would have evidence to prosecute the man who had assaulted her.
    We had about 60 clients and I had 10 employees working. Of course, among the employees, the if, how, and when of this situation was of major concern. Without going into details, I had her under constant supervision by female staff, and when the time came I collected the evidence with a witness. This is an extreme example a situation I would rather not have to repeat. But my point is, that from dealing with a client to cleaning up a mess in the bathroom, there was nothing that I would ask an employee to do that I hadn’t done myself. If I had someone who outright thought something was beneath their doing then we had a problem.
    My philosophy was that in order to lead you had to get in there and serve, everyday. This took me a long ways, it was not leading by being on some kind of power trip, it was leading by example. I had a staff that would go the extra mile for me, because I had shown that I would go the extra mile for them. It was not so much leaders and followers as it was we were ALL learners.

  • Mimi Gregor

    Like Stutteringhand, I, too, agree with the spirit of the quote, but object to the wording.

    I worked in the restaurant business for a very long time, and it always bothered me when an owner would hire a manager with no experience waiting tables or bartending or working in a kitchen. They would not have a clue as to what restaurant work is like, but would expect us to do things a certain way when another way would be more efficient (based on my years of actually doing the work) or earn me better tips. I learned through observation (of other servers arguing with these managers and losing) that it was easier to say nothing and just do it the way I thought was best. (Yes, I am a Questioner.) It’s hard to respect the opinion of someone who hasn’t actually done the work; a theory of how something should be done often collapses on itself when it is implemented. People who have done the work have figured out the most efficient ways to do things.

  • Hi Gretchen! I completely agee. That whole concept reminds me of what Jesus was always trying to model for people. It feels counterintuitive, but it’s so true and we can often trace successful leadership back to a humility and a servant-heart that has matured and grown within a leader. A lot of the things I read in The Happiness Project fascinated me in their parallels to Biblical concepts, and seeing them researched and explained so beautifully in your book – which didn’t have that as its aim – was very thought provoking and so interesting to examine through your eyes.

    I LOVE the podcast you and your sister do, the manifestos and stories, and I LOVE your writing and ideas. Thank you for letting me into your world and challenging me to be more intentional and thoughtful about my happiness and habits.
    Appreciative fan and Upholder,

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m thrilled to hear that my work strikes a chord with you.

  • Johnette Magner

    Hi Gretchen!

    I believe you need to be able to be both a leader and follower at all times, depending on the situation. The key lesson I think Aldrin is making about being a follower is openness to learning. I am a follower every day when I am with someone who can teach me something, and I don’t mind that role. In fact, I love to learn! But I also am a leader, especially in the workplace, and I am comfortable there as well.

    I have four sons – ages 19,20,21,and 22 – and I used to say they thought they were experts on all subjects including those of which they knew nothing. Many in this generation mistakenly think that all opinions are of equal value, whether or not they are informed opinions. The challenge with following today is that there are so many voices on the Internet and young people lack the sophistication to differentiate between mainstream media, where gatekeepers check for accuracy, and entertainment where there is often zero concern for accuracy and fairness.

    In summary, we all need to be followers at times, but it’s especially important that we take the time to determine if they person putting himself out there as a leader is really someone worth following.


  • KatMaria

    I believe leadership qualities are a large part of your character, Can you be a leader without being a follower, of course, but are you the best leader? The leaders I have respected the most, and felt they excelled in that role were the leaders that have done the work, felt the issues, learned the lessons, and wanted to do more, do better, and had insight and desire to make positive changes from that which could be improved upon.

  • Jeannej

    I agree with this. If you don’t know the qualities of an effective follower (I prefer team member) how can you know how to motivate people to follow you? You have no insight into their perspective. A good example of seeing this in action is when a doctor becomes a patient. Doctors right out of med school, or even a few decades out, are still strong and healthy themselves. When they get the view from the other side of the stethoscope they can use that experience to become much better doctors.

  • Arnold j. Gendelman

    Mimi got it dead on bullseye perfect. Growing up on the back of a machinery moving rigging truck I learned the hands on business from the best. Years later I made a business decision that helped make my business successful and winner of the safest accident free contractor iof such a heavy lifting and moving operation by the insurance association.
    I gave a talk at the award dinner. Introductions later invited to accept and tell the story , the audience expecting a long detailed summary, the host asked So how do you accomplish such a record year after year in one of the most dangerous and accident prone businesses we insure? Turning to the audience ” I never asked anyone in my employe to do anything I could not do better.” I exited the stage holding up the plaque and the applause was longer than the speech. Followers are leaders, depending upon how long you experience, learn from and apply what to follow means. How high educated following takes you, depends on how well you take it forward.
    Forward following as a ‘respected, reliable and responsible follower, accountable for the predictability of the outcomes expected of your job description. To me following forward is the ultimate expectation of sound leadership.

  • nielmalan

    No, I do not agree. This idea, which sounds pleasantly counter-intuitive, is in fact rooted in the false idea that an organization can be divided into active, dominant leaders and passive, submissive followers. The idea that there are people who make decisions and people who execute them.

    Of course I am not implying that an organization doesn’t need someone at the head who has the vision of where it should be going. I’m also not saying that people with more experience shouldn’t have more of a say of what should happen next. But every person in an organization can and should lead, and every person in an organization can and should follow.

    It’s time we move beyond this 19th-century leader/follower paradigm.

  • MaggieRose59

    MostIy I agree, but I don’t think I would word it quite that way. I believe that in order to be an effective leader, you have to understand what it is the followers are actually doing. Not that you have to BE a follower, but you need to UNDERSTAND following. This is a major problem in business today. It used to be that people were hired into a company at “entry level”. At this level you had to “follow” (instructions, orders, etc) until you understood the job enough to become a leader (supervisor, manager, etc). You worked your way up strictly based on merit. You not only had to know how to follow, though, you also had to have some particular leadership skills and you had to understand that particular business at the ground level. This is not the case anymore. Companies now hire all their management straight from college and put them into “leadership” positions without having had any experience at following. They have no idea what it is the people on the ground actually have to do. They only understand the numbers. They have no idea how their ridiculous edicts effect the people beneath them. And they think it is beneath them to ask! This makes for a great deal of dissatisfaction in the workplace

  • Paul

    I agree with this statement. To successfully lead, you need to be able to follow. The reason for this will show you the humility when needed, an awareness and the importance of clear communication, being able to do what you are expecting of your followers, realizing that you do not know everything and value the opinion of those around you. Being a follower could mean sitting in a workshop and learning, or giving the temporary reigns to someone else to mentor and help others develop their leadership skills.

  • Melissa Pearce

    I want to be a leader, help people. I am a follower at this point but when I think of it, in my position I am somewhat of a leader. I have an important role within my work place and other employees look upon me to fulfill that role. If my attitude or should I say emotions are high that effects others. I’m in a challenging phase (change) at the moment and it includes more responsibility and learning mentally and physically. It has been very hard for me. So my point is I’m thankful for what I have been reading here. It is helping me to shift my thinking. In the future I hope to be a good leader, not necessarily in this field I’m in, but I hope to gain personal growth to carry with me. Thanks for sharing