Wanna Be A Leader: Be A Brilliant Follower?

There very notion of “following” in American culture conjures up notions of weakness and subordination.  Our culture values dominance over submission, competition over cooperation and empathy over compassion.  It’s no wonder we are experiencing such a crisis of leadership, we have too few real followers.  Some of you may have seen this video clip of the “shirtless dancing man” that’s caught some attention on YouTube.

When I first saw this some years ago I was struck by the profound truth that the key to any movement was not really that someone was so bold as to stand up and lead, but that someone was so bold as to be an early follower.  Effective followership does require a confidence in the leader, but perhaps we undervalue the importance of the bold and confident follower who takes on the minor leader role and gets things done.  What about the faithful employee who you can always count on to tell you the truth.  What about the follower who follows through on a vision that they don’t entirely understand or share with their leader.  Isn’t this an act of bravery?  Isn’t this boldness?  Isn’t this what we need more of in our organizations?  Then why all the talk about leaders and the neglect of the important role of followers?

I think the answer is easy.  We romanticize the notion of leading, and we think that the greatest rewards go to those who lead.  But I’m not entirely convinced that this is true.  First of all, I don’t envy the work load of the leaders I know.  The president of our University, for instance, gets to stand up during  convocation with a big medallion around his neck and a 3 pound ring on his finger looking like a rock star.  It all looks quite glamorous as I sit in the front section of the audience with my fellow faculty.  He and the Provost also come to speak to our school and answer our questions once a year and I think to myself “now HE’S the man”.  But when I think about his life a bit more I quickly realize that he has 9 convocations to reside over and 10 or 15 school forums to speak to each year.  His schedule must be packed from early in the morning until late in the evening.  I know my own College Dean attends a few evening events every week.  What must the presidents evening schedule look like?  It looks glamorous to sit at the head of the table for meetings, but this doesn’t allow for much “nodding off”.  These leaders are expected to, well, “lead”.  I’m not sure it’s all that it’s cracked up to be!

But then we think of all that money a leader makes.  Our college president, from what I’ve heard, is the highest paid president in our university system.  Our state has public disclosure of state employee salaries, and he is listed as making 200k for .41fte (full time equivalent).  I don’t know exactly what that means, but let’s assume it is a way to keep his annual salary a bit less conspicuous and that his actual salary for a full fte is  then 318k.  I know one professor in our college listed at nearly 300k.  He’s worth every penny!  My point isn’t that leadership doesn’t pay, it does.  But there are many who are not in such high leadership positions that make very nice salaries.

When I worked for KPMG Consulting (now Bearing Point) I never told anyone my salary, but my colleagues did talk about theirs constantly.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that I made 20 and 30k more than some people who had more rank (and much more responsibility) than I did as a senior consultant.  I was perfectly contend making my salary given my responsibilities and “following” their lead.  In my experience, leadership means “responsibility” and “accountability” and a lot of hard work!

But if that is what you really want for your life (as if work isn’t already all-consuming in life), then learn to lead the right way; be a brilliant follower!  A brilliant follower is someone who can be trusted, someone who is reliable, someone who is honest, someone who is smart in matters that count, someone who knows how and when to cover his boss’s ass, and someone who truly knows how challenging the role of “leader” can be!


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