When I began speaking to groups of networkers, someone from the first audience asked, “What makes a leader?” I quipped, “At least one follower.”

Nah, too simple, thought my audience—and they let me know with a group groan. So I told them a story that I pulled from childhood camp memories.

For four great years I spent my boyhood summer months on Lake Champlain in upstate New York at Camp Dudley (the oldest boy’s camp in America). It was a YMCA camp; spiritual lessons were daily fare. We had inspiring talk before breakfast and dinner, grace before each meal, vespers in our cabin gathered around the fire every night. “Church” on Sunday was an outdoor affair in a natural, terraced amphitheater set in a ethereal glen amidst tall white birch and towering fir trees. I remember shuffling pine needles and kicking cones with my polished shoes when I was bored—but that was rare. Mostly, I listened.

It was actually my first course in personal growth—back then, they called it “character.”

One of those memorable Sunday Stories—the one I now told my audience—was of a father filling out his daughter’s college application.

She was applying to Vassar, a prestigious Ivy League school for women—hard as Harvard to get into. Late at night, sitting in his study, dressed in his beloved cardigan and puffing thoughtfully on his pipe, the man gave each query on the detailed application form his most sincere and serious consideration. The very last one stopped him. He stared at it for a long time.

The question read: “Is your daughter a leader?”

Now, he was an honest man. He deeply wanted his daughter to get into Vassar—but the answer that came to him bothered him. If he wrote truthfully, he feared would hurt his girl’s chances of being accepted. With a sigh, he wrote the best answer he knew.

“No. But she will make an excellent follower.”

He mailed the application the next day, and throughout the weeks of waiting, his honesty weighed heavily on him. Finally, a letter arrived with the proud Vassar seal on it. He walked into his study, sat down at his desk and opened the letter with trepidation. He could not contain the joy that brought him to tears as he read the first words:

“The Dean of Admissions of Vassar College is proud to inform you….”

At the very bottom of the letter was a handwritten note from the Dean:

“It may interest you to know that in an incoming class of 425 freshman, we will have 424 leaders—and one follower. Thank you for your integrity.”

My audience received the punch-line thoughtfully. As they digested the implications of that one, I added another favorite story on leadership, this one from Joe Batten, grand old man of public speaking and author of the best-seller Tough-Minded Leadership.

 

How to Grow Good Wool

Joe was meeting with a group of 35 CEOs for a day-long seminar on his favorite subject.

He asked them, “How many of you are leaders in your company?” Every hand went up.

Joe smiled and said, “I’ll ask you the same question after I share this true story with you.”

“In the Middle-East there are two countries separated only by a border, both with large sheep and mutton industries. The cultures of the two countries are radically different; they are hostile to each other, have even fought wars with each other.

“In one country, the shepherds walk behind their flocks. In the other country, the shepherds walk in front of their flocks.

“Now remember,” Joe reminded them, “this is a true story.

“In the country where the shepherds walk behind their flocks, the quality of the mutton and the wool is poor; it is not a profitable industry. In the country where the shepherds walk in front of their flocks, the quality of the mutton and wool is excellent and profitability is high.

“Why?”

Joe paused, then answered his own question.

“In the flocks where the shepherd walks behind—where he pushes, drives, corrects and is always in charge—the young sheep grow up afraid to stray from the flock for fear of being rapped upside the head by the shepherd’s staff, or having the dogs sent out to round them up. They have no opportunity to explore for better grass and water, or to play with other young lambs. They become obedient, passive and apathetic. By the time they are grown, they have lost all initiative. They are not really healthy.

“In the country where the shepherds walk in front of their flocks, the young lambs have plenty of opportunity to stray, play, experiment, and then catch up to the flock. Instead of feeling over-controlled, compressed, repressed, depressed, suppressed and oppressed, they feel free, empowered, enhanced and stretched. They eat more, sleep better and grow up large and healthy. They are truly led.”

As Joe finished his story, he assured the executives once more of its authenticity, then asked again, “How many of you truly lead in your company?”

Not a hand was raised.

Leader or follower. One thing I know about each is, you cannot do either; it’s a matter of who you be.

John Milton Fogg
is the author of the million-selling book, The Greatest Networker in the World, and founder of the “Greatest Networker” online community (www.greatestnetworker.com).