This week, millions of Twitter users were sent into a frenzy as every member’s “Follower” count suddenly showed “zero” across the social network.

While Twitter users were freaking out about the supposed loss of all of their precious followers, Twitter’s follower counter was not reset, only temporarily turned off, because of an embarrassing forced-follow exploit that was discovered.

What was most fascinating about “the day the followers disappeared” was not the nature of the odd exploit, but the reaction by the Twit masses: for millions, Twitter suddenly had no use or purpose. Without their followers — a concrete number of users that factually reassured them that others were paying attention to them — Twitter users felt like they were just speaking into the wind.

While turning off the follower count was merely a temporary measure, devoid of followers many Twitterers felt that they no longer had a purpose to speak what they usually spoke, or, er, tweet what they usually tweeted. TechCrunch asked out loud, “Hey Twitter, Can We Have Our 1.4 Million Followers Back?” Indeed, speaking to no followers meant there was no reason to speak at all. Ironically, this same, seeming contradiction is one we often witness in other realms of leadership wherein men and women become dependent upon their followers, especially within the field of politics — the highest, most influential level of leadership in our society.

The Leader-Follower Relationship: One Validates the Other

By all definitions of the word, being a “leader” means that one has followers. To be a really influential leader, one must have lots and lots of followers. The more followers that a leader has, the more that he or she is (presumably) supported, listened to, and agreed with. Whether a politician or user of the Twitter social network, followers are the end-game because the number of followers one has is not only a source of validation — if you have a lot of followers, then naturally what you’re saying or Tweeting is considered of value to others — but a tangible measure of influence.

On a political level, followers are needed to financially support a leader, spread his or her message, and finally, elect and reelect the leader to office. We assume that the relationship between leader and follower is necessarily as such: a leader attracts followers and the more worthy and charismatic a leader is, the more followers he or she will attract. This is mostly true. But isn’t it ironic that, when suddenly devoid of all the measures that validate and elevate a leader to the highest ranks of influence — the status of a political position, financial support, and most of all, followers — that the leader suddenly loses either the ability or the will to lead?

Not much unlike a Twitter user who suddenly finds no purpose, reason, or benefit to speak his or her message across the online social network if nobody was paying attention to him or her, so too do politicians who lose their office or tangible support in contributions or voters suddenly find no purpose, reason or benefit to be a leader and speak their message. Although the message, charisma, and hard work of leaders are what attracts their followers, in many ways, sheer followers become the only reason for being a leader at all. Devoid of followers, the leader suddenly ceases to be.

Speak As If All Listen, But None Follow

Whether an ordinary user of a social network like Twitter (through which the entire world can read and forever remember what you’re saying), or a politician standing upon a soapbox in town, a leader quickly learns that he or she must speak as if all are listening. Whether online or in person, the nature of modern technology and instantaneous communication quite literally means that anything you say can be seen in video or listened to by anyone and everyone. It can also be remembered forever.

While anyone and everyone can hear and remember what a leader says today, a true leader — one who is focused and determined to communicate his or her message on behalf of a greater cause — must be dedicated to communicating the message as if none are following.  Regardless of whether or not the leader has men and women gathering around in support of what he or she says, a true leader speaks his or her message because he or she is wholly devoted and committed to the cause. The message is not transparently altered or catered to a particular audience; it is spoken only as the leader believes it should be. The only follower that a true leader needs is one’s self: someone who is dedicated to the message that they believe will help others.

What we can learn from “the day the Twitter followers disappeared” and the nature of political leaders who suddenly lose either the ability or the will to be a leader is that a true leader should speak as if the entire world may be listening, but not because anyone is following. A true leader stays committed to the message and the greater task at hand, not for those who are following, but because the leader believes in the message itself.