Which One Are You?

A popular elementary school poster opines, "There are followers and then there are leaders." And then there are the ones who break the mold.
Jessica-bennett

It was sometime during middle school when I actually began to think about the posters. Every one of my classrooms seemed naturally endowed with those laminated squares, patched up along the wall like a quilt of inspiring messages.

Some posters became classics, such as the kitten grasping a rope above a sentence that read “Hang in there!” or the long rambling message, each word a different color, beginning: “In twenty years it won’t matter what kind of car you drove or what type of shoes you wore...” and ending in “...but what will matter is the education you received.”

Of all these posters, one bothered me most of all. I have seen this same message in many forms, but the one in my seventh grade homeroom class read: “There are followers and then there are leaders. Which one are you?”

Long before I read the works of Ayn Rand, this message seemed misleading in some deeply important manner that I could not conceptualize. I simply thought to myself: is that truly all the world is made up of? I am neither a leader nor a follower. Where do I belong?

In school, I hated doing group projects. It is not that I disliked my fellow students; I simply enjoyed doing things my way. Only I knew what I really wanted, and only I could meet my own expectations. Group work invariably included subtle character manipulations, a shake-down of sorts to settle everyone into their appropriate slots.

Finding myself as the group leader, I could never convince the other members to do exactly what I wanted. As a follower, I was forced to let my ideas slip away for the better good. Reading that same poster again and again, the confused thoughts of my younger self echoed in my mind: I am neither a leader nor a follower. Where do I belong?

The truth is, of course, that there is a third category. I personify it as a silent man standing in the shadows thinking thoughts that no one can ascertain. In the stadium of the world, the cheerleaders jump, the crowd cheers, and the silent man walks away. Why does this man get left out in a two-fold world? It’s simple: leaders make themselves seen, and followers are so vast in numbers that they cannot help but be noticed. The man in shadows requires nothing, follows no one.

That same poster adorned the wall in my freshman math class. “There are followers and then there are leaders. Which one are you?” Sitting in my uncomfortable desk, rereading the words over and over again, I began to hate that poster and the message it conveyed to the class. “The world is not so foolishly simple!” I wanted to cry to the hand that inked such a message, to the bored kid sitting behind me, to the teacher that blissfully plastered up posters without thinking about their contents.

What most people do not realize is that both the follower and the leader are mutually dependent upon each other in order to maintain their positions. A leader cannot lead if there is no one willing to follow. A follower cannot bow before an empty throne. The relationship is symbiotic and binding. There is another way to live; a way that is neither as a leader nor a follower. It is the way of the individual.

Ayn Rand understood this dilemma. Whereas I wanted to tear that poster from the wall, Rand created characters who refused to acknowledge the meaning of its message. Such a message could not function in their world. Howard Roark would shrug and walk on, Hank Rearden might scowl, and Dagny Taggart would laugh.

The leader-follower scenario does not play out among Rand’s heroes. Certainly, they may seem like leaders, but unlike the traditional definition, they are never dependent upon those who look up to them. Roark, Rearden, and Dagny never asked for followers. They simply lived the way they wanted to live and controlled their worlds with earned skills and riveted intensity. They were the individuals who played on no teams, who accepted no compromise, and who most definitely did not care about what posters said.

In my sophomore year of high school, I picked up a copy of The Fountainhead. Occasionally, when I looked up to catch my breath, those same words haunted me from above the blackboard. “Which one are you?” it taunted. But no tides of implacable anger rose inside me this time. Now I knew. Taking a deep breath, I plunged back into the text and let the world around me evaporate.


Jessica Bennett attends school at Truman State University where she is studying for a BA in communications. She has loved writing all her life, and hopes to incorporate her passion into a full-time writing career.

4 comments from readers  

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Bravo for seeing so early what so many of us discover later in life. Being an individual is not approved of in this world because it negates all the control mechanisms that are so carefully placed around us. One cannot be controlled if one has no need to lead or to follow.

Thank you for voicing what many cannot say and for condemning those insane bits of foolish quotes that so many of us endured in school. Indeed... how many young minds cried out in rebellion with no place to go back then? I know I did.
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This is the same kind of sensitive inner world that created Atlas Shrugged, a different person, but at home with her own thoughts and perceptions, able to express her thoughts in crystal-clear English. Makes you fall in love with her, or, at least, grateful that someone such as she is in the world. Her recognition of her kind of person in The Fountainhead makes me think of that taunt we used to say as kids: "Takes one to know one."
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Thank you, Jessica. Wish I had been as wise at your age.
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Interesting perspective which fits observed reality pretty well.

Jim Rogers, putative billionaire investor, says in his book "Adventure Capitalist" that "Studies have shown that the people who in grammar school excelled in recess are the ones who wind up in politics and usually do very well at it."
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.