#42 – Why you must lead or follow

By Scott Berkun, May 18, 2005

London undergroundSomething curious happens when we confront things we don’t like. Instead of taking action to improve things or accepting things as they are, we often just point fingers and complain. We’ve developed the passive habits of spectators, rather than the active roles of creators and supporters. And when it comes to making things with other people, it’s the active roles that make the difference between making things we’re proud of and those we’re not.

The dictum lead or follow means you have to decide for yourself where you stand. If you are committed to the work, you need to focus either on leading others in doing the right things or in supporting someone else that is. Critique has it’s place, but if nothing good is happening criticism is rarely a motivator for someone else to start. If you keep complaining and nothing happens the problem might be yours.

Leaders vs. followers

Binary logic is popular these days. We love to divide the world into two order piles: good and evil, happy and sad, flowers and weeds, us and them. I’m often frustrated by this, as I’ve recently noticed the universe, when you go outside and have a look around, isn’t organized in a binary fashion: it’s more complicated and interesting than that. So the dividing of things into two piles is something we do to the world to help us along. It can make it easier to contend with the universe if we create labels for groups of things and focus on how we want to respond to those things instead of spending all of eternity lost in details. As long as we choose the right dichotomy for the task at hand, we’re ok.

binary chairFor the sake of this essay, and the topic of leadership, I’m a dichotomist. We are social creatures and have ingrained in us the behavior for how to lead or follow others. In any context, at any time, any person can think of themselves, in any particular task, as either leading or following. (Collaboration can be thought of as a smooth series of exchanges between who’s leading and who’s following) As a rule of thumb, if you’re not sure what you’re doing, you’re following.

Given this division of leaders and followers, the simplest model of organizing work, one used in most human organizations the world has ever known, is to organize around a small number of people who are primarily leaders. A larger number of people, primarily followers, are organized around the leaders. This can be strictly hierarchical (Napoleon’s army), or highly organic (a small startup team of near-peer hacker/developers), but in either case there are a small number of bosses or leader figures, and a larger number of non-bosses, or non-leader figures.

When someone is leading, and doing it well, the most valuable thing for others to do is to get behind their effort and support it. A smart capable leader can only be effective if there are other capable people that choose to put their own energy behind the leader’s decisions (Every Captain Kirk needs a Mr. Spock and a Dr. McKoy). And it follows that when you’re surrounded by people who only seem capable of following, the best action to take, if your goal is progress, is to behave as a leader.

How to lead

People fear leadership roles because they require visibility and vulnerability. It is impossible to lead anyone or anything without putting some of yourself, and your point of view, out for everyone else to see. This is why many people don’t want to be leaders. Even people who have jobs that require leadership, executives, managers, technical leads, often hate the parts of the jobs that involve real leadership action. They’re afraid of revealing themselves to others and are not comfortable with the risks of being responsible or accountable for decisions that impact other people.

Leading and followingGood leaders are rare: most people in jobs that require leadership skills don’t fulfill the leadership role. Cynically speaking, even those who posses it rarely work for those that do, meaning that it’s those who are committed to leadership, regardless of the rewards, that become true workplace leaders. (And to redline your cynicism meter, it’s these pseudo-leaders, people in authority with little conviction or leadership ability, that choose who get promoted into new leadership roles, adding more trash to the leadership pool).

To be a leader means that you shape your opinions and decisions around the greater good for the project you are responsible for. This requires sacrificing your own interests and wants in favor of the needs of the project, and the people that work on it. Of course it’s possible to find ways to match your interests with the needs of the project, but it’s the project that comes first.

To be a successful leader means directing your energy in ways that creates the greatest possibility of success for everyone that works with or for you. Good leaders go beyond their own resources and cultivate positive power from others. They use any combination of persuasion, intellect, magic spells, free cookies, humor, political acumen, and surprising forms of generosity. But regardless of how they do it, leaders get everyone to understand the reasons they should contribute their own energy. It’s rarely something forced or authority driven. Good leaders make people want to contribute and work hard. Not necessarily for financial rewards, but by cultivating their own internal motivation and logic for what is a good use of their time. And this isn’t done through big speeches and morale events: it’s a belief that people build slowly, in response to their leaders, in each conversation and decision the leader participates in.

So being a leader rarely means taking forceful control over people, things or decisions. Instead it means a willingness to listen to others, and treat them with respect. Their opinions should contribute to your thinking for how best to apply your influence. The value of a leader is their positive effect on a team, not the force and power they have at their disposal. Focusing on the former is going to make good things happen. But someone that focuses on the later (force and power) is an empire builder, who is basically in an arms race with everyone else, and probably has no idea what to use those arms for should they ever win their political and power wars.

How to follow a good leader

If you choose not to take leadership actions, or are in a situation where there is another person playing the role of leader, this puts you in the role of a follower. This doesn’t make you a lemming, nor does it require brainwashing, lobotomies or heavy doses of livestock sedatives. It just means your primary role is to contribute in response to the actions of the leader. Providing your own recommendations, advice, suggestions and plans might be a large part of your role, provided it’s something that both you and the person in the leadership role are comfortable with.

But the important thing is that if you’re not leading, your job is to carry out whatever pile of work you’ve agreed to be responsible for, and to do so in the way that best supports the directions the leader is taking. If the leader is doing a good job, the thing the organization needs most from you is to execute and deliver. Even if you happen to possess good leadership skills, possibly better than the current leader, if that’s not the role you’re playing, trying to exercise them anyway can be destructive to the team. You may be trying to prove something to yourself or others, but in doing so, can easily disrupt the flow of decision making, and slow progress.

If you find yourself frustrated by the limits of your role, don’t take the passive-aggressive route (e.g. turning meetings into battlefields where you try to prove to everyone how much smarter/better/whatever you are than the person in the leadership role). Instead, be a leader in finding a mature way to handle the situation. Talk to the leader, and your manager if it’s a different person, and see what you can work out. If they’re smart they’ll consider making adjustments to give you more responsibility, and plan future changes (or checkpoints for discussion of the issue) over the next weeks and months. If you don’t feel they’re interested in getting more value from you, you know where you stand and can choose to stay in the role you have, or look to move on. But everyone is best served by you choosing to lead or follow. If you choose to lead, and can’t lead where you are, then you need to move on.

If you choose to follow, and come across conflicts in carrying out work, or find problems that the leader didn’t account for, it’s of course your responsibility to report these issues, and drive as hard as you can to find ways to resolve them. A good leader will encourage proactive responsibility for your areas. They’ll realize there are things they won’t like to hear that they need to hear, and that they need people like you to tell them. They should make it possible (if not comfortable) for you to report bad news, or to privately criticize both their decisions and how the overall effort is going. Good leaders involve everyone in their leadership of the team, and the more leadership skill you have, the more opportunities a smart leader will provide you with for sharing it with the team.

(Next essay: how to survive a bad manager )

9 Responses to “#42 – Why you must lead or follow”

  1. Deep

    Superb. I wish I had come across this article when I had started out in my career. Very impressive. Succinctly written. Invaluable.

  2. Jim

    Wonderful article! Thanks for taking the time to write and edit it. I don’t have anything to add or detract from the article itself (does that make me a follower? Ha) I just wanted to let the author know of my appreciation and satisfaction upon reading this article.

  3. Alvin

    I’ve seen some avoid leadership not just for the visibility, but because it might take them away from something they love doing. These workers are very aware of Peter’s Principle; they know being a teacher isn’t the same as being a student and being the boss isn’t the same as getting to create/break/fix whatever they love.

    The smartest managers I’ve seen took on a leadership role but only if they’d be allowed to keep some of the most interesting work for themselves. They still have to lead (and share the “fun” work), but by carefully breaking that “do less, delegate more” rule they can maintain credibility, understand their team’s needs, and stay happy in their career.



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