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EMS Leaders Learn from the Experience of Following

I am not a natural follower and I’m fairly skeptical when anyone tries to enlist me in their cause. I revel in a fierce independence. I have been my own boss for 18 years and enjoy setting my own course. So, last month, when I found myself unexpectedly and willingly following a leader while on a humanitarian trip to Vietnam, I paid attention and started talking notes. 

The unexpected leader was a Vietnamese woman named Huynh Ngoc Van. While Van is highly regarded and successful in her role as the Director of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there is nothing uniquely leaderly or overtly charismatic about her. She is short, middle-aged and displays a friendly but quiet formal deferential manner common in Vietnamese culture and society. Van was educated in the former Soviet Union and has spent most of her professional life at the museum patiently working within the bureaucracy of Vietnam’s communist government.

I had come to Vietnam under the auspices of an American not-for-profit organization. I had a specific project, agenda and itinerary unrelated to Van. But in the course of meeting her I ended up expanding the work, changing my itinerary and following her to work on a project in another part of the country. 

How did that happen? How had Van led me?  What had turned me from fierce independent to follower?

Exploring our own experiences of following can provide valuable insights into the practice of leadership – especially leading people who may be reluctant followers. Four things stand out in this experience: a positive connection; the glimpse of a compelling dream; an opportunity to do meaningful work; and a sense of belonging.

A positive connection

In reflecting on the experience, the first thing I noticed was Van had not tried to lead me. She did not ask or coerce. She did not talk about herself or the great things she was doing. She simply took an interest in who I was and why I was there.

We had met through a mutual friend and I was hoping she could assist me in making some contacts in Vietnam. Not only did she help with the contacts, she went out of her way to learn about my project, offer practical assistance and show unexpected hospitality. In short, she made a positive connection with me. 

Connections matter. From a neuropsychology perspective, we are not primarily motivated by personal gain, security and status – we are motivated by social connection. Matthew Lieberman’s fascinating work with MRI imaging at UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory shows that establishing and nurturing connections with others is the primary driver of human behavior.[1]

Maslow was wrong. Our brain’s need to connect is even more fundamental and basic than our need for food, clothing or shelter.

An important element of willing and enthusiastic followership may begin with a positive connection based on respect, trust, interest and character. We make these kinds of connections by being present and curious, listening and demonstrating concern. 

A glimpse of a compelling dream  

The second thing I noticed was that I was drawn to Van’s excitement and passion about the future. She has a powerful dream. I call it a dream because it is huge, idealistic and hopeful.

Her dream is nothing less than world peace. Yes, I know that sounds Pollyannaish, but Van’s dream is deeply rooted in reality. She grew up experiencing the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam) and, as the curator and director of a museum that memorializes that war, she lives the memory and trauma of it daily. But out of that experience she is dedicated to using history, memory, education and awareness to ensure that such violence and trauma stops being seen as a path toward solving problems. It is a compelling dream and one that I found myself wanting to support.

In describing this experience I am deliberately using the word dream – not vision, plan, goal or mission. Van’s dream is just that – a dream. It is bigger than her and probably not fully attainable. But it is certainly a dream that inspires. People don’t want to follow small-minded leaders. We want to follow people who are thinking big. When Martin Luther King gave his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial he did not talk about a vision statement or strategic plan – he proclaimed, “I have a dream.” If we are to successfully excite and enthuse followers we need a dream that can become theirs. 

An opportunity to do meaningful work

Dreams may be inspiring but they are only illusions when there is no practical application. The third thing I noticed was an opportunity to do something that matched my abilities and resources.

When I asked, “How can I help?” Van was ready with something I could do. I wanted action. I wanted to translate the inspiration into the perspiration of work and Van had something I could do right away. If she had not matched the dream with action – I doubt the motivation would have stuck. Followers need to be engaged in doing something meaningful.    

A sense of belonging

Finally, getting involved with Van’s dream offered me an opportunity to belong to something larger than myself. It allowed me to belong to a group of people working together on something we all believe matters.

We live in a time and society where individualism is highly prized. But it is largely a myth. A 75-year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 (known as the Harvard Grant Study, found that belonging and relationships are greater predictors of satisfaction and happiness than money or status. Belonging supports our need to grow, learn and feel safe. My sense of belonging was a vital part of my following experience.

Of course, there is much more to followership than my unexpected experience reveals. When was the last time you found yourself being a willing and satisfied follower? What were the elements of that experience? Our ability to lead may be greatly enhanced by understanding what compels followership.


1. Lieberman, Matthew D. (2013-10-08). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Crown Publishing Group.