Monday Mornings with Madison

When to Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

In every organization, business or department, there are times when a leader needs to step up and lead… chart a course, share a vision, give direction, motivate, encourage and guide.  There are other times when a manager or director needs to listen to the wise counsel of one who knows more, hand the reigns over and follow his/her lead.   And then there are times when management just needs to get out of the way and allow the company stakeholders to move forward… let a group function or allow a process to unfold.

It takes skill and talent to lead others.  It takes earned trust and respect to follow someone else’s lead.  And it takes faith to get out of the way and allow all the cogs in the machinery to turn as they should.   The real challenge is to understand when to do each.  That discernment is what differentiates great leaders from mediocre ones.   So how does a team leader, department manager, division director or c-suite exec develop the discernment to know when to lead, follow or get out of the way?   It takes practice, intuition, patience, trust and a sizeable measure of experience.

Why People Hate the “F” Word:  Following

It may go without saying but leaders need followers. At its core, leadership must be relational or it doesn’t exist.  Take, for example, the role of astronauts.  Astronauts are often viewed as leaders in space exploration, but there are literally thousands of people on the ground who make space exploration possible. It’s a complex set of relationships in which astronauts rely heavily on the expertise of engineers, scientists, technicians and others in order to do their job. The interplay between the competencies of everyone on the team, including the leader, is what drives success.  Sometimes the astronauts lead.  Often they follow the lead and guidance of others.  And, the majority of the time, they allow the cogs of the NASA Space Program to chug and turn in perfect precision.

There are times when the leader must step out of the role of leader to follow.  But no one strives to be a “follower.”  Some are even offended to be called a good follower.  Being a follower is viewed as subservient; not action-oriented. But because the leadership role is relational, there needs to be a positive acceptance of followership both in terms of the leader’s own ability to take on the role, and in terms of those on their team.

When to Lead

Leadership is ultimately about behavior. It’s about behavior that inspires, clarifies, and moves people and projects forward. Leadership is also highly personalized.

Knowing when to lead and when to follow begins with self awareness and personal assessment. It requires a leader to have a strong sense of self… skills and talents as well as weaknesses and limitations.  This awareness of self-limitations allows a good leader to hire people who are exceptional at whatever the leader is not.  Leadership is more about pulling together the right team than creating the right hierarchy. The best leader will understand his/her employees’ strengths and weaknesses in order to best leverage their talents.  The success of the team then builds the leader’s credibility. If the team does well, there’s an attribution effect.  Thus, knowing when to lead is in large part about knowing when to follow.

When to Follow

Indeed, there are times and situations when leadership is not needed.  Despite what many leaders think, leadership by the head of the group or organization is not always needed in all situations.  In fact, when it is not needed, attempts to lead are irritating at best and can alienate staff, resulting in rejection, rebellion and/or apathy.  There also comes a time in every leader’s life when it is time to allow others to change, add, or create methods that may or may not align with his/her vision.  “Followership” is the antithesis to leadership.  Here are some tips to recognize when it is okay to hand over the reigns and follow someone else’s lead.

1.  Expertise

Simply put, leaders are not needed when followers do not need them.  When followers are experts and capable in the jobs they are doing, then there is little need to lead them in the tasks being performed.  In fact, the reverse may be true.  Often a department head may be the best person to lead a specific project or venture.  It is impossible for a company leader to be an expert at all things.  That’s when it is important to not only hire the best and brightest, but to then trust them to take the lead.

2.  Self-driven

When followers are self-motivated and self-directed in the job that they do, there is no need for the leader to seek to stimulate them to work.  In short, let the go-getters go!

3.  Predictable / Routine

Leaders are not needed when the task is such that leadership adds nothing of value.  While everyone has an opinion, more opinions do not necessarily improve an outcome.  Just as too many chefs spoil the broth, too many leaders can ruin a project.  When a task is structured, routine and unambiguous in all ways, then once the follower knows what to do, he/she probably does not need any further attention (at least as it relates to performing the task).

4.  Measurable / Clearly Discernable Results

When the outcome of the task provides sufficient feedback on how the person is performing, then there is no need for the leader to further evaluate performance.   Looking over an employee’s shoulder while they work is irritating even to the most easy-going, congenial employee.

When to Get Out of the Way

Then there are times when it is okay to just let the wheels spin.  It is time for the leader to get out of the way when there is seamless teamwork.  When a team, group or department is focused on a task or project, is working well together and is on time and within budget, then the team itself will act as the effective leader, building motivation and showing the way forward.  The team – as a whole – is able to guide and motivate the work and workers.  Cohesiveness is the indicator that it is time to get out of the way.

So the next time a manager, director, executive or business owner is thinking about whether to step in and lead, consider first if the conditions are right to either follow or get out of the way.  If so, the wise move is to move aside and allow the right person or process to lead the helm.

Quote of the Week

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Lao Tzu


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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