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While reading Robert Greenleaf’s ground-breaking work about servant leadership, I was inspired by the image of a workplace where the trustees were servants to the employees; where the CEO is primus inter pares – first among equals.

And I also immediately recognized the challenge of making that shift, working against time, history and an ingrained organizational culture. I wondered:

In the quest for a happier and more empowered work force, should the change really start from the top?

Or is it best to tap into the power of the followers; to make a cultural change at the grassroots level? Indeed, all over the world, we’ve seen examples of followers who rise up and demand a better leader. When followers claim their power – not as martyrs or victims, being dragged along – but the true heart of any community, they can make incredible things happen.

Being a follower is different than being a subordinate. Rather, followership is about everyone seeing themselves as leaders. Even if no one reports to you, you can be a leader in your follower role, and you can transform your organization from the ground up. Who knows, you may even start a viral movement!

This organization, group or community that you’re part of, it has a mission. Maybe you had no part in writing that mission, but you can still own it. You can carry that mantle through your day-to-day activities.

It’s a win-win situation. The leaders who did create the mission will win because there’s no way their purpose will be realized if followers like you haven’t bought into it.

You win because your work will have a compass to follow, and you will have a deeper sense of purpose. Your work will be richly inspired by new opportunities to take a stand for that purpose, to further it along, to keep it together and make it happen and to make a difference.

When I had a follower role as a project manager, I was always intensely committed to whatever project my team and I were working on. I viewed myself as a steward of the project that I had been asked to care for. If project funding was questioned or threatened, for example, I took responsibility for showing the executive team the connection between that project and the company’s mission. I would speak up about the importance of the project, and highlight the accomplishments my team had made.

This is a big shift from the mentality of working for one particular person (a leader or boss) to the idea that I was working for the organization and its purpose.

Standing up for what you believe can feel like a tough choice to make, especially in today’s economy when some people are losing their jobs. It takes a lot of courage, and I can’t tell you whether or not to do it. It all depends on what you see as your calling. Backing off doesn’t make you bad or wrong, it’s a choice. And sometimes making that “safe” choice means you can stay where you are and continue to do good work, holding fast to your purpose.

So how can you maintain your integrity and your stewardship for what you’re responsible for, without ruffling any feathers or jeopardizing your job? Start with a couple of powerful questions:

“Am I making the best use of the resources I’ve been entrusted with?”
“How can I support my leaders to reconnect to the purpose of the organization?”

Keeping these questions at the top of your mind will help you stay focused on doing the right things in the right way. It will help you shift out of cruise control mode, and go deeper into your work. You can do more than just show up and get things done. You can do them with purpose.

When you’re really owning and making the best use of the resources you’ve been entrusted with, you can take ownership of the purpose of the organization and have a positive influence on those around you.

Jeff Harmon

Jeff Harmon is the president of Brilliance Within Coaching & Consulting which specializes in developing servant leaders while helping them translate their strategies into actionable plans that drive business results. Jeff is the author of “The Anatomy of a Principled Leader.” Jeff has been developing leaders for nearly 20 years and has led the execution of over 100,000 hours of business strategy for information technology, financial services and non-profit organizations.

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