On Leading and Following

Photo Credit: Adrian Trendall via CC License

This article was first published on the FCR blog on March 21, 2017. Click here to read the original.

I’m not sure which job is more difficult, leading or following. I’ve logged my fair share of hours in both positions and have even been a follower in one area of my life while leading in another. And the two roles really aren’t mutually exclusive. There are no followers without leaders, and there are no leaders without followers. I learn a ton from both perspectives. Let’s explore.

From the leader’s perspective

Leading can be a lonely place at times. Leaders are responsible for the performance of followers. While followers might weigh in with their opinions on overall direction, it’s ultimately the leader’s decision and responsibility.

Leaders are in the position of hearing the opinions and needs of followers and balancing those to make the best decision. This can be a really difficult position because the final decision isn’t always the most popular one for all involved.

Some followers might follow a little too closely, with too much zeal, while others seem to critique the leader’s every move. Then there are the other followers who have an opinion, but not the courage to speak up, and still others who are so disillusioned with the whole direction that they’ve checked out entirely. Yes, all of these can be taxing on a leader.

From the follower’s perspective

Following can be fun at times, as long as followers support where the leader is taking them. Followers get the benefit of showing up and following without the burden of setting the direction. They are accountable to listening to direction and going where the leader wants them to go.

What if followers don’t like where the leader is taking them? Do they have the opportunity and the safety to provide input to the leader, or is it their job to just follow obediently? If it is the latter, should they just put their head down and do their work, or actively find another leader to follow?

Followers do have other followers to discuss the direction with. Whether they like the direction or not, this can have a unifying effect on the followers. If they don’t like it, commiseration can quickly undermine the leader’s authority — or at least move more followers into that disillusioned group. And at what point does commiseration turn into unhealthy or destructive gossip?

Wrapping it up

Like I said, I’ve been in all of these positions at some point in my life — sometimes at the same time. When everything is going well, both leading and following can be fun and rewarding. When things don’t go well, leadership can be downright lonely and stressful, and following can be completely miserable.

Regardless of whether you’re leading or following, it will bode well for you to seek to empathize with the other side, repeating “assume positive intent” as your mantra. Good, effective leaders are rarely perfect but truly want to know how to do right by their followers — achieving their shared goals together.

Followers who are heard, understood, and encouraged are much more likely to be engaged. Leaders also need to realize that followers can easily lose sight of the ultimate goal amid the daily minutiae and need consistent help maintaining that focus.

Oh, and one last thing: I didn’t mention the leaders who don’t have their followers’ best interests at heart, or the followers who refuse to follow. I’m not sure I can do much to help those folks. Whether we’re leading, following, or both, we must always realize that we have much to learn. The more we realize this, the less we undermine the other, and the better we work together. That’s the kind of leader and follower I want to be.

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