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Leadership is powerful.

Many leaders are able to draw us into greater action and more radical passion than we could ever generate on our own. That is both the wonder and the danger of leadership. But we sometimes seem to forget that the power held by leadership actually comes from the followers.

The old axiom goes: “If you think you’re leading but nobody is following, you’re just taking a walk”. This remains true whether the leader is pursuing an agenda I endorse or one I despise. A leader is only as powerful as the combined power generated from the followers.

In most cases even radical leaders are essentially moderates among their movement. They may be fiery communicators and advocate for edgy ideals, but in order to maintain momentum they must also balance the need to bring as many people along as possible.

Push a little too far and you lose your base.

Of course if leaders are moderates there have to be some among their followers that are significantly more extreme than the leaders, or at least more rabid in their devotion to the cause. These passionate disciples are usually both appreciated by and a mild embarrassment to the leader. Their dedication is exemplary, but their tone and temperament can alienate them from the bulk of the movement and offend outsiders rather than win them over.

Wise leaders learn to hold radicalism in tension. It serves a purpose but not every purpose, and left unchecked it always undermines the leader if not the entire organization.

Movements become most radical as they decline because all the moderates have moved on. There is evidence of this pattern in religious groups, politics, social movements, business, and charities. Inability to manage both the moderates and the extremists effectively limits the term of any leader. I suppose this can be a blessing.

The lesson here is fairly simple: Leaders have nearly no power of their own, they only hold it in trust from their followers. Leadership is always a gift from the people and a service to them.