Understanding the Difference Between Herding and Leading

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There are innumerable people in leadership positions, but there is an infinitesimal number of real leaders. The reason for this is that real leaders drive opinion, while other so-called leaders are driven by it. When a person convinces others to change their opinion about what should be done and why, they are exhibiting the essence of leadership. On the other hand, when those in positions of leadership sublimate their views to the popular opinions of the masses – as most politicians do – they become herders, not leaders.

Politicians who follow this herding formula of leadership come to be considered “the establishment,” because they always follow the established opinion of what and how things should be done. That is the reason why, despite often being promised, change rarely happens after an election. Except in rare occasions, those elected are the mirror-image of what they are driven by: the opinions of others. As a result, elected officials seldom have the character, courage, vision or ability to drive opinion; so they become the herders of opinion rather than makers of opinion. That is why there are so few real leaders in politics.

Of all those who have been elected President of the United States, only four of them – George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt – drove opinion. When they left office, the general opinion of what the country should be and where it should go was fundamentally different from what it was when they were first elected. Washington drove the concept of federalism; Jackson introduced populism; Teddy Roosevelt ended laissez-faire capitalism and FDR introduced the concept of social safety-nets provided by the government. Of note is that while these leaders were reviled while in office for the opinions they sought to drive, when they left office their popularity was at an all-time high and they were recognized as true leaders.

Different in the World of Business

The world of business is different. The leader is vested in the authority to lead; they are not “elected” by those they are charged with leading. This would seem to make it easier for the leader to drive opinion, rather than be driven by it. But the reality is that it is often more difficult to actually lead in business than it is in politics.

On the one hand, most of those under the direction of the leader in business need and want to be “herded” to do what is expected of them. If not properly explained and implemented, change can be confusing. At the other end of the spectrum, most of those who vested the individual with the authority to lead are comfortable with the current consensus of opinion as to how things should be and are recalcitrant to face change. This circumstance puts the nascent leader in the middle with seeming little room to actually lead.

That is why so many in business who start with the desire to be an effective leader end up being no more than effective “herders” of opinion and action. (The politically correct term is “manager.”) That’s fine if the person is comfortable managing the opinions of others, but it is frustrating for those who are determined to be real leaders.

Out Front and Alone

Those who seek to be real leaders – in business and politics – have to understand that by definition they cannot be a leader – one who drives opinion rather than being driven by it – unless they are out ahead and alone. Those who are unable to accept this premise for leadership will ultimately find themselves following the herd, not leading it.

But that’s okay, because as they say, “If leadership were easy, everyone would be a leader.” Only those who are willing to pay the price for leadership can achieve it. Changing well-established and accepted opinions is not easy and it does not come overnight, but with persistent leadership it can come over time. And that is what ultimately separates a leader from a herder.  

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