A few months ago, I posted the question, “Are you ready to be a (better) leader?” Since then, I’ve continued to explore the topic of leadership. “Are you a leader or a follower” is something of a trick question, because it can have more than one “right” answer.
I suppose it’s possible that some people who are considered leaders don’t make good followers because they have an intense drive to move things forward. Taking a back seat to another person, even temporarily, might not be in their DNA. However, I can’t help thinking it’s essential for a really great leader to understand what it takes to be a good follower. It seems to me you need to have experience as a follower to gain that kind of understanding–to be fully aware of what it takes to motivate people not only to follow you but to follow you effectively in pursuit of a goal.
When this idea first came to me and I decided to write a post about it, I thought it was my own insightful notion. Then I had second thoughts and realized I might not have been the first person to discover this concept. I did a little looking online, starting with the phrase “leaders and followers,” and–yep!–I found out that a whole raft of people have been writing on this topic. In fact, some of them, like Michael Hyatt, have been doing it for years.
The blog post I found by Michael is titled, “Why the Best Leaders are Great Followers.” Michael has been a leader (he was an executive at a publishing company before branching out on his own), and he says, “I contend that if you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower. Although it is rarely discussed, this is where almost all of history’s greatest leaders got their start.” Then he gives three examples from the Bible: Joshua and Moses, Elisha and Elijah, Peter and Jesus.
The flip side, according to Michael, is that “history’s worst leaders never learned to follow. As a result, they became tyrants, making the lives of their own followers miserable.”
Michael suggests 5 characteristics that describe a great follower–clear, obedient, servants, humble, and loyal. If any of those terms make you cringe or cry, “politically incorrect,” try to withhold judgment until you’ve actually read what Michael says about each of the characteristics.
Can you be both a leader and a follower? Maybe not simultaneously, but I believe you can be both at different times or in different circumstances. For example, if your job requires you to lead a team that’s tasked with achieving a challenging goal, you’d better be the best leader you possibly can in that situation.
On the other hand, if you’re a member of your company’s executive management team, you need to be good at taking direction and acknowledging the leadership of someone else. Of course, you’re also contributing value to the team, and that is likely to be as a leader in one sense (of your team or organization)–just not the leader of the executive management team.
Do you absolutely have to be a leader? No. Some people are happy and fulfilled as followers and make a great contribution in that role. There’s nothing wrong with that. The important point is being happy as a follower. An unhappy follower, especially one who really wants to be a leader, is not a desirable situation. If that describes you, I strongly recommend exploring what it would take to position you as a good leader (maybe even a great one) and then taking steps to get there.