Being a Great Leader Means Being a Great Follower
I remember my first job that required leading people and how uncomfortable I felt. I was leading a team with much more experience and yet it seemed that my team would look to me to have all the answers. Knowing that wasn’t an option for me, I took the approach of sitting down with everyone and letting them know that they know their job better than I ever will, and I’ll look to them to help guide our team. My role will be to work across the company to align us with the goals and priorities of our business, make sure we all know how we’re doing every day, and do whatever I can to support their success. It took a few months to build the trust of the team, but soon we had a cohesive group of unique individuals working together and our performance showed it. And as the leader, I realized the team was often leading me.
As I continued into bigger leadership roles, it became clear that I needed to be a great follower if I wanted to be a great leader. Being a leader is a choice you make, and so is following. Would you follow someone that never took a step to the side to recognize your leadership and give you a chance to grow? There are some great reasons to follow and approaches that you can use to develop that skill.
When you’re in the moment with people and listening deeply to what they have to say, you’re following them in conversation. By doing so, you’re listening to understand their perspective, letting them guide the direction of the conversation, but staying connected to them throughout by confirming their point of view and acknowledging their perspective by reshaping yours.
To learn something new means you often need to follow someone who has the expertise to share and can help guide you into a new belief or skill. As a leader, it’s not your job to have all the answers, but it is part of your role to seek out solutions and find those solutions with your team. That means listening, learning, and changing side by side with them, and following the best ideas that emerge.
Cultivating Trusting Relationships
Strong relationships with mutual trust start by connecting with people on equal footing. Regardless of position or title, you have to go to where people are to connect. This means showing up authentically with no hidden agendas, seeking to understand who they are, and finding connections with both sides contributing to the relationship. People need leaders, but also want to be recognized for the value they bring which means sometimes following them.
To grow your team, you have to give people a chance to try new things, learn by doing, and make some mistakes along the way. That holds true for developing leaders as well. By intentionally putting people on your team in a position of leadership, whether it be leading a meeting, a project, a conversation, or even acting in your position for a week while your out, you provide a great platform for people to develop as leaders themselves.
As a leader, dictating that people follow you may get people to be compliant with your expectations, but they’ll be minimally engaged and you won’t get anywhere close to the full potential of your team. People that chose to follow are fully engaged, finding ways to contribute and get better as a team, and will lean forward to address issues that come up without needing to be asked. To get there, one element less talked about is the need to create room for them to join on their terms. Give everyone a voice, pull out ideas so everyone can contribute, acknowledge everyone’s difference as a strength that makes the team stronger, and demonstrate mutual respect at all times. Keep a seat at the table open for everyone to join the conversation and help everyone find their way to that seat.
The most successful leaders in the world are also great followers. And although it may not be explicit in how they describe themselves, it will often show up in a trait most often used to describe them – humility.