Of Leaders, Followers and the Self


‘Follow the Leader’ is a staple activity in my elementary physical education classes. We start in Pre-K in pairs and move up to groups of 3 and 4 in the primary grades. It’s a simple exercise, easy to understand and provides opportunities for everyone to practice both leading and following.

Leading is a big deal in the elementary years. Line leader, class helper, door holder – titles of authority and indicators of special tasks can mean a lot to young students. Being first may hold such a huge importance for some students that they are prepared to openly struggle to maintain or capture the coveted pole position. For young children being first is often what defines the leader.

Being the leader, in the context of class lines for example, involves higher visibility, some responsibility, and likely more attention. Following, in contrast, conveys much of the opposite: less visibility, no special responsibilities, and probably less direct attention from adults.

I’ve been thinking hard about following recently. In preparation for an all elementary event during which our 5th graders will be the primary leaders, my colleague and I are having them practice teaching games to their classmates. We provide the game descriptions and some presentation guidelines.  On the whole, students do a fairly good job of “standing and delivering”, as it were. The struggle, however, lies in the following.

I am often taken aback at how inconsiderate peers can be of each other when two of them are up front presenting. Their fellow students chat, interrupt, and joke around while two classmates are aiming to accomplish a task to benefit the whole class. (Ultimately, everyone gets to play the game so there’s a tangible reward for completing the first part of the task successfully.)


Almost everyone volunteers to lead, yet few show much interest in following.

This is a genuine conundrum.

In the earlier grade levels, my kids and I talk about being both good leaders and good followers, usually in the context of the game “follow the leader.” Good followers are helpers, they support a leader by cooperating with her or him. In turn, good leaders look out for those who are following them – they adjust to make sure that everyone can keep up and stay together. We discuss how good leaders are also helpers. Without too much abstraction 5, 6 and 7 year olds can get this and make use of it.

My 5th graders (and likely all elementary students) have lots of other things on their minds: fitting in with their peers; being, or at least seeming cool, how they look, whom they like, whom they fear… I suppose the list goes on and on. Their social hierarchies are visibly complex and evolving; hardly flexible or permeable at will. Individual choices about whom to follow, when, and under which circumstances, are bubbling both beneath and on the surface in every PE class. And while we’re not playing ‘follow the leader’ as a distinct activity, for sure, the dynamics of leading and following are on display minute by minute. Power need not always show itself in adversarial behaviors.

On the contrary, many more of the social interactions I observe among peers in 5th grade revolve around pleasing, entertaining, and buffering. So when I observe students being rude and inattentive towards their classmates who are leading an activity, what I am also seeing are non-prescribed forms of followership:  One friend trying to impress another, a group outsider seeking an in to the popular bunch, the momentary amusement afforded by a class clown – these are all part of the picture. Students’ boisterousness or lack of focus is not malicious – they appear to be, instead, the result of various social priorities, which have little concern for or direct connection to my lesson objectives.

Meanwhile, in the current education climate we gladly center conversations around leadership and how to prepare students to pursue and practice leadership in a variety of ways and contexts. I get that.  At the same time, I wonder if we do this at the cost of lessons dedicated to what the vast majority of us will need to do more of the time when we engage in groups and teams: follow. And when I say follow, what I mean is to be a constructive, alert and active group member. Thinking about the dilemma with my students and considering many of my own engagements with peers and groups – the need to develop and train group members to recognize their significant roles in shaping processes and determining the quality of the outcomes strikes me as so much greater.

In my classes as well as in my meetings, I want to work with group members who

  • manage to listen and think before speaking,
  •  extend the respect and consideration they also hope to receive,
  • can stay open to ideas which are not their own,
  • are present with positive purpose and intentions,
  • can respect and adhere to constructive group norms,
  • can admit mistakes as well as celebrate successes.

As a teacher, these are my objectives: the skills and competencies I want to develop in my students as we go about the business of learning all things PE. My kids are great at giving me the answers they think I want in response to the question: “What made you successful as a group?”


It is when I ask them to be more specific that they can, in fact, identify many of the behaviors listed above. They will often mention that someone took the lead and describe how that helped them. Frequently they can point to different group members who led in different ways at different times.

What I want them to understand is that the success of the group requires BOTH: leaders and cooperative group members. I want them to grasp that when they are constructive and active group members who support a shared effort through their actions and words, that too, constitutes a form of leadership that is perhaps even more important: self-leadership.

A healthy sense of self-leadership is what allows us to be effective group members – the best possible followers a leader could hope for: supportive, available, attentive and active.

So perhaps rather than cultivate better “followers”- which carries negative connotations – what I wish for is a stronger emphasis on self-leadership in groups. And this may be the term I can use with my 5th graders to help them better recognize how their individual behaviors and choices can shape a group’s outcomes. It may be a cognitive stretch at the outset but I feel confident that they (and I) will find space for this idea in our practice.


(images via Pixabay.com)


6 thoughts on “Of Leaders, Followers and the Self

  1. Very instructive.
    Even if this piece centres around, and designed for, primary school scenarios of leadership this is, in actuality, very applicable to everyday adult life. We tend to forget that in order to be a good leader one has to understand the art of following and teamwork.

    Moreover, there are some who tend to (and; fallaciously so) think that following is a sign of weakness.

    Thanks for this.

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