People often follow leaders because they feel they “have to.” If I don’t do what she says, I’ll lose my job. 

That’s not freely following.

But then there are other leaders people freely follow. They don’t follow because they feel they “have to” but because they “want to.”

What’s the difference? Why do some leaders incite resentment while others inspire loyalty?

There are many reasons, but all revolve around a sense that things are better with the leader than they would be without them. Here are three examples:

  1. The follower has a greater sense of achievement that requires the group and the leader.
  2. The follower has a greater sense of personal betterment from working with the leader.
  3. The follower has a sense of belonging. Good relationships offer the love and security that make people want to stay in groups.

When followers get any or all of these from the work of the leader, they follow willingly. They see that the leader is adding value to the follower in some way.

The Power of Group Achievement

Let’s think about the achievement factor. Truth is, groups can do some things that individuals can’t. The TEAM acronym holds in certain situations: “Together Everyone Achieves More.”

  • Individuals can’t win basketball, baseball, or football games. Only groups can.
  • Individuals can’t manufacture a million widgets for national distribution. Only groups can.
  • Individuals can’t police and protect an entire city. Only groups can.

When we’re part of a group, our sense of collective achievement and meaning can go up. We can feel like we’re accomplishing more together than we can on our own.

That’s why we want to form groups.

And groups require leaders.

In the late 1800’s the Western Shoshone Indians in North America were as unstructured and independent a group of hunter-gatherers you could get. They ate pine nuts, roots, and seeds. They had no reason to work together, and they pretty much didn’t.

Until it came time to catch rabbits. There were lots around, and since antelope kills were few and far between, it would help everyone to catch them.

Problem is, they were tough to catch.

Someone in the tribe came up with an idea that required a large group of people. Half the group would line up and walk slowly through a large field, driving the rabbits to the other group on the other side who held a woven net of plant fibers hundreds of yards wide. Together they could herd and harvest hundreds of rabbits in one coordinated effort, then split the catch evenly.

To maximize the catch, the group designated a “rabbit boss,” an ad-hoc leader who would make sure everyone was walking in step. The boss led the group for the catch, then promptly resigned.

In a 2013 blog post I described the reason for leadership and teamwork:

Why do teams form? To seize opportunities unavailable to individuals. And why do leaders lead? To help teams work together. Synergy is the root of teamwork and leadership.

When followers see how a group achieves things together that people can’t achieve on their own, they see good reason to follow. Leaders who consistently show followers how the group is doing more because they’re a group tend to get more willing followers.