Followers Make Leaders

Leadership in Project Business [1]

Project Business Management


By Oliver F. Lehmann

Munich, Germany

“The fact is that followers are gaining power and influence while leaders are losing power and influence.”
Barbara Kellerman[2]


Literature generally assumes that leadership is a form of skill, or a skillset, or possibly a mindset. People become leaders because they have these abilities, that others do not have, and by turning these others into followers. However, is it not a far more logical assumption that followers make leaders? And are “leadership skills” not rather the skills that prevent leaders, once chosen by followers, from failing?

What is Leadership?

It was on 11 August 1999, when a total eclipse of the sun was announced for major parts of Central Europe, including Munich, Bavaria, where I had a classroom training on that day. The eclipse was to happen about an hour after lunch time, so I made a decision with my students to stay longer after lunch break and watch the phenomenon together.

At the time of the eclipse, there were thick dark clouds hanging deep, and most people in Munich had no chance to actually watch it. All they saw was the world around them slowly getting dark, an evening just after lunch time, immediately followed by something similar to a morning. My students and I were however lucky. By chance, we happened to have a major hole in the clouds above the restaurant that the training company had booked for our lunchtime, big and stationary enough to see the eclipse from start almost to the end. So, we stayed a bit longer at our lunchtime places. We sat on the terrace of the “Michaeligarten” park restaurant, which has a nice vista over a little lake and a free sight into the sky. Just on time as forecast, the sun circle got dented, and this dent, the moon covering parts of the sun, became wider and wider.

On that day, some flocks of greylag geese flew over the park from West to East, and when the moon covered around 90% of the sun’s area, a flock of about 40 birds landed on the water of the lake. As geese generally do, they had followed a leader goose, probably on the way to a meadow, where they could graze, and this individual must have gotten confused by the slowly progressing disappearance of the sun. After the leader goose had landed on the lake, the other geese followed.

Swimming on the water, the geese were very noisy. The puzzling of their leader unsettled the other geese, and the impression was that they were frightened and did not know what to do. I had not known before, how much noise a flock of 40 scared geese can make. Approximately one raucous minute later, another group of geese flew over the lake. This flock was more than twice as large, and they flew in the same Eastern direction as the first groups. Their leader goose seemed not confused at all by the vanishing sun but instead flew ahead on its way, and so did its followers in the graceful V-shape order as geese normally do.

The frightened geese down on the lake reacted immediately. They started from the water, which made even more clamor when 40 pairs of wings flapped on the water, left the lake and each goose found its place behind the wing tip of another goose, a place which gives them the comfort of being securely guided and of reduced air drag[1]. They saw someone seemed to know the way, and preferred to follow the leader, which took a lot of distress from them.

I am not sure if anyone else in the Michaeligarten had observed this short episode of less than two minutes. People around me had their protection goggles on and watched the sky. I also did that too, of course, when this short intermezzo was over.


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Editor’s note: This series of articles is by Oliver Lehmann, author of the book “Project Business Management” (ISBN 9781138197503), published by Auerbach / Taylor & Francis in 2018. See author profile below.

How to cite this article: Lehmann, O. (2021). Followers Make Leaders; Project Business Management Series, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue IV, April.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/pmwj104-Apr2021-Lehmann-Leadership-in-Project-Business-PBM-series-article.pdf

About the Author

Oliver F. Lehmann

Munich, Germany

 Oliver F. Lehmann, MSc, ACE, PMP, is a project management educator, author, consultant, and speaker. In addition, he is the President of the Project Business Foundation, the home association for professionals and organizations involved in cross-corporate projects.

He studied Linguistics, Literature and History at the University of Stuttgart and Project Management at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he holds a Master of Science Degree. Oliver has trained thousands of project managers in Europe, USA and Asia in methodological project management with a focus on certification preparation. In addition, he is a visiting lecturer at the Technical University of Munich.

He has been a member and volunteer at PMI, the Project Management Institute, since 1998, and served as the President of the PMI Southern Germany Chapter from 2013 to 2018. Between 2004 and 2006, he contributed to PMI’s PM Network magazine, for which he provided a monthly editorial on page 1 called “Launch”, analyzing troubled projects around the world.

Oliver believes in three driving forces for personal improvement in project management: formal learning, experience and observations. He resides in Munich, Bavaria, Germany and can be contacted at oliver@oliverlehmann.com.

Oliver Lehmann is the author of the books:

His previous articles and papers for PM World Journal can be found here:

[1] (Scott, 2005)
[1] Based on a chapter in Oliver Lehmann’s book “Situational Project Management, the Dynamics of Success and Failure (Lehmann, 2016)
[2] (Kellermann, 2008)