Both ‘following the CEO’ and ‘obeying the CEO’ are separate from ‘going out for an inspection’. There are ‘two parts of speech’ in both cases, and by the way, the て form actually tends to link actions quite closely and sequentially, whereas the masu-stem, which is another possibility in this context, would actually separate the two actions more clearly. As such, I don’t really see why the て form makes one interpretation more likely than the other.
Secondly, it makes clear sense for a CEO to do an inspection. The subject of the sentence, on the other hand, has no clear status and no clear right to inspect anything, so it makes more sense for the speaker to be following someone with that right than to be simply following someone’s instructions. Let me illustrate this with an example: imagine that I’m someone in a company who’s a newbie and I’ve been told to inspect all the other newbies, and maybe even some other people. Even if the instruction came from the CEO, would you be able to take me seriously? I have no capacity to inspect other people because I’m new. The idea of obeying doesn’t work as simply as the idea of following here.
Finally, like I said, when 従う means ‘to obey’, it usually comes after something that expresses someone else’s will or some kind of standard that can be followed. Here are all the examples from the two dictionaries I have:
「係員の指示に―・って下さい」‘Please follow the instructions of the person in charge’
「日本の習慣に―・って屋内では靴を脱ぐ」‘To follow the Japanese custom and remove [one’s] shoes indoors’
「矢印に―・って角を曲がる」‘To follow the arrow and turn the corner’
【人・命令などに】obey ; 【指示・忠告などに】follow ; 〖屈服する〗【人・要求・意見などに】give* in, ｟書｠ yield ｟to｠; 【意志などに】bow, bend* ｟to｠.
obey [disobey] his orders.
follow [(従って行動する) act on, (受け入れる) take] his advice.
follow [｟話｠ toe] the party line.
give in to his opinion.
bow to the will of one’s father.
Notice how none of these examples simply use ‘person に従う’, even though it would obviously make the sentences much shorter. Why is that? I think the reason is quite clear. And by the way, the relevant Japanese definition I have says
My translation: to listen to and accept what others say; to stick to orders, teachings, rules and so on
It’s clearly meant to be used with things, not people. Or at least, using it with things is much more common.
Those are my main points. Some side notes regarding translation for consideration:
- Notice how often 従う can be translated as ‘to follow’ in all these examples, even for the ‘obey’ meaning? Shouldn’t that tell us that 従う is actually very close to ‘to follow’, and that a translation that’s close to ‘to follow’ is more likely to be correct?
- We’ve just seen above (with Yomi-chan’s translation for に従って, which is actually based on に従って as a set phrase, not as a normal verb, which is how it’s been used here) that machine translation and dictionaries without examples tend to give poor translations. I am not looking down on the Japanese person who responded to you, but how do you know that he didn’t just check an EN-JP dictionary without examples for a translation of 従う?
I’m definitely not better at Japanese than the guy who responded to you, but I am providing you with clear evidence from dictionaries, with examples (and not just translations) showing us that 従う is used in a particular way, and with particular types of words, when it means ‘to obey’. More context would be helpful, but all the things I’ve listed above add up to suggest that the ‘follow’ meaning is more likely.
You are free to think that I’m wrong, and I won’t defend my interpretation beyond this post, but my searching tells me that both 大辞林 and 大辞泉, which are two of the major free/widely available Japanese dictionaries online, agree with me, because there are no [person]+に従う examples in either dictionary except for the ‘follow/accompany’ meaning. I think even 精選版 日本国語大辞典 (another major dictionary available for free on Weblio.jp) supports my interpretation because all the definitions that look like they can be applied to people, aside from ‘to follow’, are much more extreme, and involve ‘submitting/surrendering/listening without resistance’ to someone. That’s a level beyond ‘obeying’. (You’ll also notice that most of the translated examples sentences from this dictionary page (「従う」に関連した英語例文の一覧と使い方 - Weblio英語例文検索) in which 従う means ‘to obey’ don’t relate to people, even if there are a few exceptions, and even then, some of those exceptions involve huge gaps in status like emperor-minister relationships and parent-child relationships, in which strict obedience very close to submission was traditionally expected.)
We can agree to disagree – and you can definitely decide the Japanese person is more credible than me – but I’m not changing my stance unless you or someone else provides arguments and reasoning to justify the ‘obey’ interpretation, or to undermine the ‘follow’ interpretation.
PS: After some extra searching, I realised that I own the book that this sentence is taken from. It’s from the kanji book of the Shin Kanzen Master N1 series, right? Yeah, so I went and looked for a pattern in how examples are given, and I noticed that when SKM gives multiple examples for one kanji/verb, it selects examples that show the multiple meanings of the verb. This example is next to another one:「命令に従う。」In that example, it definitely means ‘to obey’. What’s the point of providing another example in which the word just means ‘to obey instructions’, when a prep book is meant to help you learn as much about a word as possible for the test? If you don’t believe me and you own the book like me, go look at the examples for 狂う on the same page, a little higher up. The word 狂う means slightly different things in each example: 気が狂う ‘(for someone) to go crazy’, 時計が狂う’(for a machine or a situation) to become abnormal’ and 予定が狂う ‘(for plans/predictions) to be misaligned with reality’. These meanings are three different definitions in my monolingual dictionary. That is how SKM books work. Even if we can’t deduce the meaning from the sentence alone, we can figure it out based on SKM teaching methodology. I rest my case.