COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

First, you learn how to follow

There are so many books, workshops and keynote speakers on the subject of leadership. Most, if not all, focus on what the leader can do to be a better leader. Few talk about how to be a better follower.

It has often been said that “To learn how to lead, you must first learn how to follow.” Ben Franklin said it. William Boetcker (pen name Tiorios) said it. Probably anybody who bothered to examine the role closely has said it.

But there are no celebrities earning huge speaking fees talking about “Effective Following.” I haven’t seen a conference advertised for “Taking Direction When You Disagree.” There are some books on following, a few articles published. But it’s a whisper compared to the deluge of leadership material.

What does it mean to be a good follower? And why have smart thinkers suggested learning how to be one is a prerequisite for developing leadership skills?

My theory is that learning how to be a good follower is itself an act of leadership. It’s easy to follow someone whom you admire, respect and trust. Following is effortless when the leader makes no mistakes, treats you like gold, looks out for your interests, helps you grow and buys your kid’s school raffle tickets.

But leaders seldom live up to the very high standards that we, as followers, demand in order to give up our will in deference to theirs.

Decades of surveys reveal that people want the same things out of their leaders, such as confidence, competence, compassion, inspiration, commitment, vision, character and motivation. The same surveys show that people don’t give their current or former leaders a very good score on those qualities and characteristics. Why?

It’s really, really hard to be that good all the time.

So our response to imperfect leadership is that we rebel. We go around them. We take over. We passively resist. We argue. We enlist the support of others, seceding from the union of the leader and the led.

Far from helping, this response to leadership we find wanting simply makes matters worse. The leader feels rejected, threatened, possibly even useless. The followers get even poorer leadership in return for their obstinate behavior.

To follow well requires a person to lead the relationship, to take the first steps toward improving that leader’s behavior. I’ve always said to people that you don’t need to be led well to learn how to lead yourself. The longer you wait, the worse things get. You can be the leader by taking initiative to improve the relationship, to improve your leader’s abilities.

But why would the leader listen to you? If you passively resist what you feel is poor leadership, or directly challenge it, what would be the likely reaction to your helpful suggestions on how to improve? Not welcoming, probably.

But if you demonstrated that you would follow the lead, cheerfully, even when you disagreed, you would develop a sense of trust from your leader. Because then you could be trusted to carry out directions, even when you felt it was not advisable.

I’m not suggesting that if your leader says to do something illegal, unethical or immoral, that you should comply. Short of those high bars, there are few instructions that would be fatal to follow. You might not like it. You might think you have a better idea. But if the decision is to take a path that you think isn’t optimal, and you do it to the best of your ability, your leader will greatly appreciate your compliance.

If you put everything you have into the decision, and it turns out to be the bone-headed idea you thought it was, the leader will be forced to face responsibility for having made a poor decision. The leader won’t be able to blame your reticence or lax effort and will be more likely to listen to your countering views in the future. And the leader will feel confident that you support them.

If you’ve been a leader and you’ve been challenged visibly by someone who reported to you, you know what your first reaction is: anger, resentment, distrust. You feel that you can’t count on this person to help you get done what you think you need to. You begin to carve them out of your future plans.

It’s very hard to forgive what seems to be insolence or insubordination. After all, the leader’s personal future is entirely dependent upon what others do or don’t do. That’s a risky position to be in, which most leaders don’t consciously acknowledge. Often, they just react as if you’re an adversary.

To demonstrate support, respect and the grace of a willing follower is to teach a poor leader how to be better.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He is vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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