It’s widely said that in order to be a good leader, one must first learn how to follow. In a way, it makes some sense; leaders need to understand how their particular style is received from a follower’s perspective. They also need to appreciate that “followerhood” is the boots on the ground point of action where a leader’s charted course is tangibly felt. Still, as I’ve pondered this recently I’ve come to my own conclusion that this conventional wisdom is completely backwards; which I suspect is why no leadership guru has ever written a book on how to be a good follower! Leaders don’t need to know how to follow to successfully lead; rather, followers must learn to lead to grow themselves and their organizations.
It starts with a truly defining leadership. The dictionary definition simply states that it is “the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group.” I would add to that definition that a leader is also the principle motivator and empowerer of a group. Additionally, good leadership requires clear communication of all of the above. None of those functions, guiding, directing, motivating, empowering or communicating really require knowing how to follow. They’re unique skillsets in their own right. Notice that my definition doesn’t conjure images of micro managing or ordering. Those actions are contrary to empowering and in my opinion stifle forward movement.
More important for a leader than “knowing how” to follow is knowing herself and her leadership style. Every leader is different. Being a “good” follower of a bad leader, a good follower of competent leader A and a good follower of competent leader B are all different things. It makes me wonder how a person can learn to follow when every leader is unique and not only communicates, motivates and empowers differently, but requires different things from their constituents?
While it’s true that a follower travels the course that a leader has charted, it must be understood that a good follower possesses leadership skills to successfully navigate that course. It doesn’t work the other way around. John Maxwell has rightly said that the hardest person to lead is yourself. Successfully implementing the leadership skills of motivating and empowering on oneself is necessary all the way down to the lowest level of an organization. It seems clear to me that learning to follow is a waste of time. Learning leadership is the key to success in all endeavors.
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