More than a few thousand books have been written on leadership—how to be a better leader, how to become a leader if you’re not, what qualities constitute a good leader. Leadership seems at times to be the holy grail for which all business people should be striving. But what if there is another side to this coin?
What if leadership is not always the ultimate goal?
One of my church pastors once told me (right after I had been named Chair of the Board), “In order to be a leader, you must first learn to be led.” What if the foundation of good leadership is actually good follower-ship?
Here are five key situations or scenarios where being a good follower is essential to your success.
- When you’re the new kid on the block
- When you’re in over your head
- When you’re the only one in the parade
- When you don’t have a clue
- When the role makes you tired
- When you’re the new kid on the block. This happens to all of us, probably multiple times during our careers. Maybe you’ve just joined a new firm, just been promoted to team leader or principle broker, or just hung out your shingle in a new neighborhood. This is not the time to demonstrate what a great leader you are. If indeed you are, people will find out eventually. Instead, follow the 70/30 rule: listen 70% of the time and talk 30%. Resist the temptation to get attention tout your recent wins and successes. Instead, ask questions of people who’ve been around the block a few more times than you have. Ask co-workers to explain procedures. Take notes.
- When you’re in over your head. You’ve been struggling for months to put a deal together and now it’s about to blow up in your face. The person who knows this particular set of circumstances best is, in fact, one of your major competitors. You know you should pick up the phone and call him, but your hand is frozen. Swallow your pride, thaw out, and make the call. The old cliché, “What goes around comes around,” is actually true. One day the situation will be reversed, or your competitor will be in a position to send a referral your way and he’ll remember what a great follower you were.
- When you’re the only one in the parade. You’ve been championing a new idea for months. You’ve lobbied everyone in the company, from the owner to the guy who delivers bottled water, but you’re just not getting any traction. It’s time to stop the music. Possibly your idea has merit but this is just not the right time. Perhaps you need to reconsider and reorganize. Whatever the reason, put it on the shelf for now and look around for someone else’s project you can get behind and support. Don’t try to take it over and don’t take any if the credit if it succeeds. Just offer your support and quietly begin speaking to others about it. You’ll be remembered for your follower-ship skills.
- When you don’t have a clue. We’re all put into positions from time to time when we have to learn something new. The company just put in a new computer system. The real estate laws in your state have undergone a major change. The company has been sold and you’re under new management. Now is not the time to act like you know something when you don’t. Instead, adopt the concept taught by many Asian business leaders: beginner’s mind. This means being totally open to new ideas, feeling eager to know more. Choose to ignore what you think you already know. Beginner’s mind is actually the place where your mind does not know what to do. But you remain available to find out.
- When the role makes you tired. We all know the saying, “Unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” Philosophically, that may be true, but always having to be up front can be exhausting. (Ask any sled dog.) Needing to know all the answers all the time can create a level of stress that will wear you down. If you let this go on long enough, you’ll be of little use to anyone, not even yourself. So take a leadership sabbatical. Gracefully back out of leadership roles, committee chairmanships, other high profile responsibilities. Concentrate on your core business, on building client relationships and applying your leadership skills to your own business portfolio. It doesn’t have to last forever (unless you want it to) and the results may surprise you.
Are there places in your business right now where you’d love to play the follower role? Give it a try for 30 days or even six months and see what happens.