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If You Don’t Do Anything, You Are Neither Leading nor Following

Earlier this week I was asked about why I am focused on “behavior-based” leadership and followership being so essential.  My immediate response was, “Can you be a leader or a follower without doing anything?  If the leader or follower do nothing, does anything get accomplished?  Leadership and followership are all about the behavior and at least doing something.”  The person I was talking with asked me to explain this a little further, which I did.  However, because all of my books are “behavior-based,” coupled with this question, and the fact that there is limited literature on this I felt it would be good to discuss this concept a bit. 

One of the oldest known quotes about leadership comes from the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (Lao Tzu), who is believed to have lived in the sixth century BCE. He is traditionally credited with writing the "Tao Te Ching," a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism. Here is a quote from the "Tao Te Ching" that reflects ancient wisdom on leadership:

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."

Even in this simple statement derivatives of the word “do” are present.  “When his work is done,” with done being the past tense of do.  “We did it ourselves,” with did as a past tense of doing or do.  Even in the sixth century BCE leadership and followership were related to “doing” something or accomplishing a goal.  So why must leadership and followership include some action or “doing?”


Why Leadership and Followership Must Include Action

Leadership and followership must include action or doing something because these roles are inherently about influencing and achieving goals through coordinated efforts. Several reasons why action is essential in leadership and followership include goals, influencing, motivation, problem-solving, learning and development, building trust, collaboration, and accountability.  Let’s explore each of these:

Goal Achievement: Leadership and followership exist to accomplish specific objectives. Actions are necessary to move from planning and strategizing to actual implementation and results (Northouse, 2018). Leadership and followership are fundamentally oriented toward the accomplishment of specific objectives. The roles of leaders and followers are defined by their contributions to achieving these goals. Here’s an expanded explanation of why actions are necessary to move from planning and strategizing to actual implementation and results:

Translating Vision into Reality: Leaders often set the vision and strategic direction for an organization or team. This vision provides a sense of purpose and a clear target for everyone involved (Northouse, 2018). However, a vision alone is not sufficient; it must be translated into actionable steps.  Implementation is the actions which are the means by which strategies are executed. This includes assigning tasks, mobilizing resources, and coordinating efforts. Without concrete actions, even the most well-articulated vision remains a mere idea without impact (Kotter, 1996).

Bridging the Gap Between Planning and Execution: During the planning phase, leaders and their teams develop strategies, set goals, and establish timelines. This phase involves detailed thinking about what needs to be done, who will do it, and how it will be accomplished (Mintzberg, 1994).

Execution: Moving from planning to execution requires decisive actions. This involves deploying resources, initiating projects, and continuously monitoring progress. Effective execution transforms plans into tangible results, ensuring that objectives are met (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2000).

Driving Progress and Momentum: Actions initiate change. They create momentum that propels the team or organization towards its goals. This momentum is crucial for maintaining focus and energy over time (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009).  Actions enable leaders and followers to assess progress and make necessary adjustments for continued improvement. This iterative process of action, feedback, and adjustment helps in refining strategies and improving outcomes (Deming, 1986).

Active participation help motivation and engagement.  When team members participate in actions that contribute to the goals, they are more engaged and motivated. This active participation fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the outcomes (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).  Actions produce visible progress, which can boost morale and motivate further efforts. Seeing the visible or tangible results of their work encourages team members to stay committed and continue contributing (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).

Engaging in actions allows leaders and followers to develop and hone their skills and in doing so, they build competence and confidence in their abilities and actions. Practical experience gained through action is invaluable for personal and professional growth (Day, 2014).  Successfully completing actions builds confidence in both leaders and followers. This confidence is essential for tackling future challenges and pursuing more ambitious goals (Bandura, 1997). 

Actions are critical for the achievement of goals in leadership and followership. They bridge the gap between planning and results, drive progress, engage and motivate team members, and build competence and confidence. Without action, the strategic visions and plans of leaders remain unfulfilled, and the potential contributions of followers are unrealized.

Influence and Impact:  Leadership involves the capacity to influence others towards achieving a shared vision or set of goals. This influence is not merely about giving directives but inspiring and motivating others to align their actions with the organizational objectives. Leaders who effectively communicate their vision can inspire a collective effort, creating a sense of purpose among followers (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). However, this influence must be translated into concrete actions to be effective. For instance, a leader might articulate a compelling vision of innovation, but without actionable steps—such as setting up brainstorming sessions, allocating resources for new projects, and encouraging experimentation—the vision remains a theoretical aspiration rather than a tangible reality (Northouse, 2018).

Without action, the influence exerted by leaders remains abstract and fails to produce concrete results. Tangible outcomes are achieved when leaders and followers actively engage in tasks that drive the vision forward. Actions such as setting clear goals, delegating responsibilities, and providing feedback are essential for converting influence into impact (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). Furthermore, the impact of leadership is not solely measured by the intentions behind it but by the real-world changes it brings about. This underscores the importance of action in leadership and followership, where the true measure of influence is seen in the accomplishments and progress made towards the organizational goals (Yukl, 2013). Thus, effective leadership is characterized by a seamless blend of influence and action, ensuring that visions are not only shared but also realized through diligent effort and strategic implementation.

Engagement and Motivation: Active participation in tasks and projects is a critical component of maintaining engagement and motivation among team members. When individuals are directly involved in the execution of projects, they feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility towards the outcomes. This engagement is essential for fostering a collaborative environment where team members are motivated to contribute their best efforts (Hackman, 2002). Engaged employees are more likely to invest time and energy into their work, which not only enhances productivity but also drives innovation and creativity. Moreover, active participation allows team members to see the direct impact of their contributions, which can be highly motivating and satisfying (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

This active involvement also reinforces commitment to shared goals and aligns team members with the leader's vision. When leaders encourage participation and empower their followers, they demonstrate trust and confidence in their team's abilities. This empowerment fosters a sense of belonging and loyalty, as team members feel valued and recognized for their contributions (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). Furthermore, participation in meaningful tasks provides opportunities for personal and professional growth, enhancing job satisfaction and reducing turnover rates (Hackman, 2002). By actively engaging in the tasks at hand, team members internalize the organization's goals and vision, creating a cohesive and motivated workforce dedicated to achieving collective success (Yukl, 2013). Therefore, the strategic involvement of team members in projects is crucial for sustaining elevated levels of engagement and motivation, ultimately leading to better performance and organizational outcomes.


Problem-Solving: Both leaders and followers must actively engage in actions to effectively address challenges, make decisions, and adapt to changing circumstances. In dynamic and often unpredictable environments, problems arise that necessitate immediate and strategic responses. Leaders, by taking proactive measures, set the stage for a problem-solving culture within the organization. They must analyze situations, identify issues, and mobilize resources to tackle challenges head-on (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). For example, in times of crisis, a leader’s ability to swiftly gather information, consult with stakeholders, and implement contingency plans is crucial for mitigating risks and minimizing disruptions. Similarly, followers contribute by bringing their expertise to the table, collaborating on solutions, and executing the necessary actions to resolve issues. This collaborative approach ensures that diverse perspectives are considered, leading to more comprehensive and effective solutions (Yukl, 2013).

Problem-solving is inherently an active process that requires continuous effort and intervention. Effective decision-making is a key component of this process, involving both leaders and followers in evaluating options, predicting outcomes, and choosing the best course of action. Adaptive leadership, as described by Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009), emphasizes the need for leaders and followers to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. This means not only reacting to immediate problems but also anticipating future challenges and preparing accordingly. By engaging in ongoing problem-solving activities, both leaders and followers develop resilience and the capacity to navigate complex situations. Active intervention allows the team to learn from each experience, enhancing their ability to manage similar issues in the future (Northouse, 2018). Ultimately, the concerted efforts of leaders and followers in problem-solving foster a culture of agility and innovation, which is essential for sustained organizational success.

Learning and Development: Practical involvement in tasks and projects is crucial for both leaders and followers as it provides valuable opportunities for learning and skill development. Engaging in real-world tasks allows individuals to apply theoretical knowledge to practical scenarios, bridging the gap between understanding and execution. This firsthand experience is essential for developing technical skills, problem-solving abilities, and strategic thinking (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, & McKee, 2014). For instance, a leader managing a complex project learns to navigate the intricacies of resource allocation, team coordination, and deadline management. Similarly, followers involved in these projects gain insights into operational processes, enhancing their competence and confidence in handling similar tasks independently in the future (Kolb, 1984).

Leaders and followers grow significantly through their experiences, including both successes and failures. Successes validate their strategies and approaches, reinforcing effective practices and boosting morale. Conversely, failures are equally valuable as they offer critical learning opportunities. When leaders and followers encounter setbacks, they are compelled to analyze what went wrong, which fosters a deeper understanding of their work and encourages the development of better strategies for future endeavors (Edmondson, 2011). This iterative process of action, reflection, and adaptation is fundamental to continuous improvement and innovation within an organization. Moreover, experiencing a range of outcomes helps individuals develop resilience and a growth mindset, which are essential traits for long-term personal and professional development (Dweck, 2006). By engaging actively in tasks and projects, leaders and followers not only enhance their skills but also contribute to creating a learning-oriented culture that benefits the entire organization.

Building Trust and Credibility: The adage "actions speak louder than words" is particularly pertinent in the context of leadership and followership. Leaders build trust and credibility not merely through their rhetoric but through consistent, reliable actions that demonstrate their commitment to their team and organizational goals. When leaders act with integrity, follow through on promises, and visibly support their team members, they establish a foundation of trust. For example, a leader who actively participates in challenging projects alongside their team members and provides support during challenging times shows dedication and solidarity (Covey, 2006). These actions communicate to followers that the leader is dependable and genuinely invested in the collective success, which is crucial for fostering a trusting and collaborative work environment (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).

Similarly, followers build trust by actively contributing to the group's efforts and demonstrating their reliability. When followers engage fully in their roles, take initiative, and consistently deliver on their responsibilities, they show that they are dependable team members who can be counted on to support the group's objectives (Covey, 2006). This active participation not only helps in achieving the organization's goals but also reinforces a culture of mutual trust and respect. Trustworthy followers are essential for the smooth functioning of any team, as their actions reassure leaders and peers of their commitment to shared goals (Yukl, 2013). By taking proactive steps and showing dedication through their actions, both leaders and followers cultivate a robust foundation of trust that enhances teamwork, collaboration, and overall organizational effectiveness (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002).

Collaboration and Synergy: Effective leadership and followership inherently involve a symbiotic relationship where both roles work together towards achieving common goals. Collaboration between leaders and followers is essential for the success of any team or organization. This collaborative effort is rooted in the active participation of all members, where each person contributes their skills, knowledge, and perspectives to the collective task (Hackman, 2002). Active participation ensures that everyone is engaged and invested in the outcomes, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability. Leaders play a critical role in facilitating this environment by encouraging open communication, promoting inclusivity, and recognizing the contributions of their followers. This mutual respect and recognition create a solid foundation for collaboration, driving the team towards shared success (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).

Communication and coordination are pivotal elements of effective collaboration. Leaders must ensure that information flows smoothly within the team, allowing for transparency and clarity in roles and expectations (Hackman, 2002). Clear communication helps prevent misunderstandings and aligns the team’s efforts with the organizational goals. Additionally, coordination of efforts ensures that resources are used efficiently, and tasks are completed in a timely manner. This requires leaders to be adept at planning and organizing while being flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Followers, on the other hand, must be proactive in sharing their insights, providing feedback, and supporting their peers. This two-way interaction not only enhances the decision-making process but also builds a cohesive and resilient team capable of overcoming challenges and achieving its objectives (Yukl, 2013). Thus, the synergy created through collaboration in leadership and followership is crucial for driving organizational success and innovation.

Accountability: Both leaders and followers hold crucial roles within an organization, and with these roles comes the responsibility of accountability. Leaders are accountable for guiding their teams, making strategic decisions, and ensuring that organizational goals are met. This accountability means that leaders must not only plan and strategize but also take concrete actions to implement these plans and monitor progress. Effective leaders demonstrate accountability by being transparent in their decision-making processes, accepting responsibility for outcomes, and being willing to address and rectify mistakes (Kelley, 1992). This approach not only builds trust and credibility but also sets a standard for followers, showing that accountability is a valued and essential aspect of the organizational culture (Northouse, 2018).

Followers, similarly, are accountable for executing tasks, supporting team objectives, and providing honest feedback. Their actions reflect their commitment to their roles and responsibilities within the team or organization. By actively participating and taking responsibility for their work, followers demonstrate accountability, which is crucial for maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of the team (Kelley, 1992). This includes meeting deadlines, producing quality work, and being proactive in problem-solving and innovation. When followers hold themselves accountable, it reinforces a culture of mutual respect and reliability, where each member understands their impact on the team’s success. Moreover, this shared accountability ensures that both leaders and followers are aligned in their efforts and are working cohesively towards common goals, thereby enhancing organizational performance and cohesion (Yukl, 2013). Actions that fulfill these responsibilities and demonstrate accountability ultimately contribute to a robust and dynamic organizational environment.

In summary, action, or doing something, is the bridge between intention and outcome in the dynamics of leadership and followership. Without action, the influence of leaders and the contributions of followers remain abstract and unproductive.  Although these explain the action and how they are effective in making leadership and followership intentions tangible, we still need to connect this to behavior. 

Relationship Between Actions and Behaviors

Actions and behaviors are closely related concepts, often used interchangeably, but they have distinct nuances. Actions are specific, observable activities or deeds that individuals perform. Actions are concrete and can be directly seen or measured (Bandura, 1986). For example, authoring a report, giving a speech, or organizing a meeting are actions.

Behaviors, on the other hand, encompass a broader range of actions, including the manner in which actions are performed. Behaviors include patterns of actions, attitudes, and responses to situations (Ajzen, 1991). They reflect underlying values, beliefs, and attitudes. For example, being punctual (a behavior) involves the action of arriving on time. Let's take a look at this relationship.

Relationship Between Actions and Behaviors

Behavior Drives Actions:

  • Attitude and Beliefs: A person's behavior is influenced by their attitudes and beliefs, which in turn drive their actions (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). For instance, a leader who values transparency will consistently engage in actions that promote open communication.

  • Intentions: Behavioral intentions lead to specific actions (Ajzen, 1991). A follower intending to support their team might take actions like volunteering for tasks or offering help.

Actions Reflect Behavior:

  • Consistency: Consistent actions over time reveal a pattern of behavior. A leader who frequently acknowledges team members' contributions is demonstrating a behavior of appreciation.

  • Observability: While behaviors can sometimes be internal (like thoughts or feelings), actions are the external manifestation of those behaviors, making them observable and measurable (Bandura, 1986).

Feedback Loop:

  • Reinforcement: Actions can reinforce behaviors. Positive outcomes from actions can strengthen the behavior (Skinner, 1953). For example, a leader who successfully resolves conflicts through active listening will reinforce the behavior of active listening.

  • Adaptation: Feedback from actions can lead to changes in behavior. If a particular action leads to negative outcomes, a person might adapt their behavior to improve future actions (Lewin, 1951).

Influence on Others:

  • Modeling: Leaders and followers influence each other through their actions and behaviors. Effective leaders model desired behaviors through their actions, setting a standard for followers (Bandura, 1986).

  • Perception: Followers' perceptions of a leader’s behavior, through their actions, shape their response and engagement. Conversely, leaders observe followers’ actions to understand their behavior and make necessary adjustments (Northouse, 2018).

Examples in Leadership and Followership

  • Leadership: A leader who values empowerment (behavior) might delegate tasks (action), provide resources (action), and give constructive feedback (action) to team members (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).

  • Followership: A follower who values commitment (behavior) might consistently meet deadlines (action), actively participate in meetings (action), and seek opportunities for improvement (action) (Kelley, 1992).

Putting it All Together:

In the realm of leadership and followership, action is a fundamental component. Without action, individuals are neither leading nor following effectively. Leadership requires more than just vision and strategy; it demands the execution of plans and the implementation of ideas to drive the organization towards its goals (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). Leaders must actively engage in decision-making, resource allocation, and motivational efforts to inspire their teams and ensure progress. Similarly, followers must translate their commitment and support into tangible contributions, participating actively in projects, offering feedback, and striving towards shared objectives (Northouse, 2018). This dynamic interplay of actions between leaders and followers creates a cohesive environment where goals can be realized, and the organization can thrive.

The necessity of action in leadership and followership is intrinsically tied to behavior. Actions are specific manifestations of broader behaviors, which include attitudes, values, and patterns of action (Bandura, 1986). Without actions, the behaviors that define effective leadership and followership remain theoretical and unobserved. Effective leaders not only articulate their vision but also model the behaviors that are necessary to achieve it, such as integrity, perseverance, and empathy, through consistent actions (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). Similarly, followers demonstrate behaviors such as reliability, initiative, and collaboration through their active participation and contributions (Northouse, 2018). The alignment of actions with desired behaviors ensures that both leaders and followers are actively contributing to the organization’s goals, fostering a culture of accountability and continuous improvement (Ajzen, 1991). In essence, without action, the behaviors that are essential for effective leadership and followership cannot manifest, and the potential for organizational success remains unrealized. 


About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the owner of CMF Leadership Consulting and is currently the Business/HR Manager for a District Attorney’s office in California. Chris is a Leaderologist II and President Elect of the National Leaderology Association (NLA) who holds a Doctor of Education (Ed. D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, with graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is a developer, trainer, consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations since 2010. Chris is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a former National Instructor for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and California P.O.S.T. Supervisory and leadership courses. Chris is the author of "Liminal Space: Reshaping Leadership and Followership," "Because Why... Understanding Behavior in Exigencies." and of "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior." Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service leading such teams as the Homicide Team, the Hostage Negotiations Team, the Street-Level Drug Team, and the School Police Officer Team.



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