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Why Do People Follow?

why do people follow sara thomas leadership coach

An Average Person’s View on Leadership

So, why DO people follow certain leaders and not others?

If you think it has to do with vision, purpose, humor, or humility, sorry, those aren’t the reasons.

Let’s try again.

For ordinary people, why do they follow certain leaders and not others? That includes you and me and the people next door. (Well, maybe I’ll let the neighbors decide whether they’re ordinary or not!)

Think for a minute about the leaders around you:Why do People follow? Sara Thomas Certified Dare to Lead Facilitator

  • social influencers
  • elected officials
  • first responders
  • educators
  • faith leaders
  • media personalities
  • health trendsetters or ice cream taste testers 😉
  • exercise gurus
  • fashion designers
  • parents
  • neighborhood leaders
  • and meet-up organizers

The list could go on and on. But the question is, why do people follow? Why did you follow someone to taste that new ice cream flavor at the new ice cream shop last week? And before dinner no less!

Just kidding 😉


Why did you follow your supervisor on a new plan to reach your department goals?

For many people I know, this is the time of year when they start leading a new congregation. As pastors, July 1 is the new year. So as you start a new appointment year, at a new (or new to you) local church, or as you continue to serve a local congregation, let’s pause and ask, “Why will the people who participate in the local church follow you?”

To answer the question, we need to participate in an experiment.

An Experiment

Let’s join a much bigger exploration of understanding followers and leaders. What’s an average person’s view of leadership? Why do they follow?

To get to the answer, Gallup¹ asked 10,000+ people to answer a simple question:

What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life?

Mark their initials down on a piece of paper.
Now, list three words that best describe what this person contributes to your life.

What do you think was on the top of the list for over 10,000 respondents?

If you once again answered vision, humor, humility.

Sorry. Those were not the words.

But there were more than 1000 people who came up with the same words. Unbelievable if you stop and think about it. Without prompting, the same words appeared. When you consider the number of words in the English language, that’s pretty amazing.

Still, after the experiment was over, Gallup explored four of the most common words in leadership literature: purpose, wisdom, humor, and humility. These words were nowhere near the top of the list.

If you said any of those four words, don’t worry! Others did, too, they just didn’t rise to the top of the list.

If you didn’t answer, go ahead and do so before you continue reading.

What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life?

Mark their initials down on a piece of paper.
Now, list three words that best describe what this person contributes to your life.

What Leader Has the Most Positive Difference in Your Daily Life? Sara Thomas Strengths Dare to leadFollowers’ Four Basic Needs

With startling clarity, it seems followers know what they need from leaders. Based on the responses to the question, the four basic needs of followers include:

  • Trust
  • Compassion
  • Stability
  • Hope

People follow leaders who offer trust, compassion, stability, and hope.

Let that sink in for just a minute.

Who are you leading? Are you offering them what they need from you? If you haven’t thought about leadership from the perspective of what followers need, you’re not alone.

Consider the difference it will make to the people around that are just getting to know you. What might happen if you began to develop trust with others? Offered compassion? Stability? Hope?

You’d not only have a position of leadership, but you’d also be a leader.

So let’s lead well.

Leading well means considering what the people around you need: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.

Before you leave…

What three words did you offer to describe what the leader contributes to your life? Let me know in the comments below. Then, go get some ice cream. It is summer after all.

In the coming weeks, we’ll look at each of the four needs of followers, then begin to look at each of the 34 strengths and how you can build trust, show compassion, provide stability, and create hope from each of the themes.

Take the Next Step

Download a free guide to Strengths Based Disciple Making.

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Want more insight into the Four Basic Needs of Followers? Get Strengths Based Leadership. 

Discover your top 5 strengths with Discover your CliftonStrengths: StrengthsFinder 2.0.

1. Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams and Why People Follow, p.80-82
6 replies
    • Sara Thomas
      Sara Thomas says:

      Love it! Sounds like you have experienced a leader who creates an environment for people to follow.

  1. Nancy Holloway
    Nancy Holloway says:

    My three were integrity, compassion and presence, but I didn’t really have an individual in mind. Those are just my expectations.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Review the “Basic Needs of Followers” here. […]

  2. […] The first need of followers is trust. You can find an overview of the “Basic Needs of Followers” here. […]

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