November 5, 1993

Leaders and Followers

If a person is to become a shepherd, it helps if he likes to associate with sheep.

What makes a person a leader? Only one thing: he can get a group of people to follow him.

That doesn't seem to be much of an accomplishment. You can get a bunch of cats to follow you by dragging a dead fish on a string. A herd of sheep or cows will follow the leader to wherever he leads. In the same way, there are many people who will follow almost anyone, almost anywhere.

When I was in high school, one of our favorite pranks was for three or so of us to go to some heavily populated place and stare up at a tall building. Before long, others would stare up at it, trying to find out what was happening. We would then step back and look at the crowd that had gathered, all of them looking at absolutely nothing. We were leaders.

If you look at what is happening in your own community and at what is happening in the world, it is obvious that some leaders benefit their followers and others lead their followers, and everyone around them, to destruction.

Just as Sancho Panza followed Don Quixote, they follow a promise of great things in the future. Sancho was promised an island to rule; the followers of many religious prophets are promised a better life after they die. Everyone wants a better life; if not now, then later will just have to do. Just as the cancer quack has nothing to back up his promise, neither did Don Quixote nor many leaders.

Dividing the world into leaders and followers isn't particularly valid. Almost everyone is capable of both leading and following. The President of the United States may be the leader of the free world, but he follows his Secretary of State, as well as his physician. He might even listened to his wife.

It seems to be a phenomenon peculiar to our time and country, that many people think that because an actor can memorize lines and read them convincingly, that he will be a good leader and should be followed. It is possible to get through any school or university on memory alone. Many people believe that someone who has memorized the Old Testament or the New Testament or the Koran is automatically competent as a leader. Many also believe that if someone is elected to public office, he automatically acquires the ability to govern or to make wise decisions. If that were true, our elected officials would be wise and all of us would benefit from their wise leadership. It is obvious that not only is that not the case, but the opposite is often be true.

One good way to become a national leader, in a republic, is to have a slogan that promises the electorate what they want. There were promises of "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage," a New Deal, a Fair Deal, Less Government, No New Taxes. Huey Long had had the perfect one: Every Man a King. He forgot to make every woman a queen, and he just couldn't deliver. Even a cow will not follow the same leader if it doesn't lead them to food or a place to bed down. The cow never questions that the farmer will take care of him. For the milk cow, that's true. The beef animal finds out, too late, what his destiny will be.

One great appeal of a military leader is that he will lead his troops to plunder and wealth. In some impoverished countries, the promise of three square meals a day for his soldiers is more than enough to raise an army; provided the leader can deliver the meals. Thanks to the more wealthy people and nations that, in one way or another, support these leaders, he can deliver. How else could a leader form an army in a country where the price of a rifle is much more than the person who totes it can possibly earn in a whole year?

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