Often the Best Way to Lead is to Follow


Too much is made out of what it takes to be an effective leader. It’s like leadership is this preternatural faculty that only a few have the aptitude to grasp; but that’s silly. The truth is that leadership is one of the easiest talents to master.

man_gives_birds_flightIf, as a leader, you do the right things, you won’t have to do anything, because the followers will be motivated to do everything for you. The reason leadership seems so elusive and difficult for many to master is because the most effective actions needed to achieve the status as a leader are contrary to what is often taught and practiced.

The general belief – especially in the business world – is that power and leadership go hand in hand. The conception seems to be that power conveys leadership, and the more power one has and uses, the more they establish a leadership persona. This doctrine is most often exhibited when the senior management of a company is referred to as the “leadership group.” The message to the workers is that, since these managers have been vested with the power to manage, they are ipso facto leaders. Of course this is fallacy, because the possession of power may be important to despots, but it is no assurance of leadership capability.

The attitude that power equates to leadership leads many to concentrate on a single-minded effort to accumulate, concentrate, display and use power in the belief that this will establish their leadership credentials. It is true that power and leadership do go hand-in-hand, but what these people don’t understand is that power does not bring leadership. On the other hand, leadership does bring power. When it comes to leadership, power that is retained is dissipated, while power that is disbursed is expanded. Successful leaders have learned to distribute power among their followers without relinquishing their authority. While it may seem contradictory to give up the power to others to decide and do what needs to be done, this approach effectively multiplies the effectiveness of the leader and allows them to keep focused on the bigger vision of the organization.

When you’re not sure . . .

Insecurity causes many in positions of authority to be uncomfortable shifting power to their followers. They see the sharing of power as a sign of weakness and a lessening of their power. But the reality is that when power is shared, it is inherently increased for the one who has the power to share it. In addition, this sharing of power allows the follower to better understand what needs to be done and motivates them to own the process.

Successful leaders understand that no matter how much mandated power they may have, it is never enough power to impose their will on others. They may have the power to make others comply with their edicts, but there is never sufficient power to make others want to do what needs to be done. The only way a leader can consistently motivate others to want to do what they want them to do is to inspire them to action. This is accomplished when:

  • The leader has a clearly defined vision that has been lucidly communicated and consistently adhered to, and
  • The leader has established broad-based but well-defined “rules of engagement” to be followed in achieving the vision.

Then the leader can be comfortable vesting the followers with the freedom and power to determine and do what needs to be done to achieve the objective.

This type of leadership methodology allows an individual to do the one thing that always defines the most successful leaders: to offer others the opportunity and freedom to be leaders in their own right. This approach to leadership imbues within the follower the understanding that they are entrusted with the power to make a difference. It offers the follower the freedom to seek out a high level of creativity within a clear, well-defined structure and to carve out a place of value within the organization. In return, the follower develops respect and appreciation for the leader who has empowered them and is motivated not to let the leader down, so that they might gain even more power and freedom within the organization. Even more important, this approach tends to turn followers into leaders in their own sphere of influence and motivates them to teach and encourage others to participate and do what needs to be done.

The leader recognizes that most people are more comfortable with a certain amount of structure and certainty, but for them to be involved and committed to the goals of an organization, they need to feel their value is acknowledged and they have the freedom to develop and apply their ideas. It is a simple mandate offered by successful leaders that says to the followers: I will set the way, but I will trust you to lead the way. Effective leaders innately understand that when the follower is given the power and responsibility to contribute to the solution of a problem, they buy into the solution and work to prove its effectiveness.

The leader is always thinking about the future, but understands that the only way to get to the future is to go through the present. As a result, the successful leader lives in the future, but functions in the present. This allows the leader to keep the long-term vision in mind while encouraging the followers to focus on the details of the journey, rather than the ultimate goal.

At the core of a successful leader’s philosophy is an honest desire for the success of the followers that exceeds their own personal desire for success. This is best demonstrated when the leader exhibits a genuine concern for the welfare and future of the followers. The leader does not just give lip-service to respect, value, trust and commitment, but shows it by setting the way while offering others the power to lead the way. This allows those who are followers to feel and respond as leaders, and nothing encourages followers to follow a leader more than this.

And the Moral of the Story . . . 

Leadership is not some mystical talent that is magically bestowed on a chosen few, nor can leadership be mandated by the granting of position and power. Becoming a leader is a process that evolves over time and everyone can learn. What it takes is an understanding that leadership – especially in the business world – can never be commanded, but must be earned. The good news is that learning to be an effective leader is a simple process. It boils down to doing simple things, but simply doing them.

Simple things that show respect, trust and have confidence in others. This is best accomplished when the leader is confident enough to share power with others so that they may become leaders in their own right. In the end, the best way to lead is to follow.

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