Leading by Following


Business Team Signing ContractOn March 27, 2013, Mary Jo Asmus at Aspire Collaborative Services LLC,  wrote a post entitled, “When great leaders need to be great followers.” Since I read that post several weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about all the times when I have had to follow, even when I have been ostensibly in a leadership position.

1.  When Others Know More

I have always liked to be an “expert,” the person who knew the most about a particular topic. Yet my career has involved a series of roles in which I abandoned my expertise to learn something new.

Each time I started something new, even when I was the manager of a group, I had to follow my staff, who knew more than I did about our function. For example, when I managed an employee relations group, I knew the end result of what we were supposed to accomplish (engaged and productive employees), but I had a hard time predicting how employees would react emotionally to policy changes. I had a staff of HR professionals who had worked with these employees for many years, and I had to rely on them.

And when I managed a compensation group, while I knew that pay scales had to be set fairly and objectively, I had no idea how to structure pay grades with sufficient differentiation, yet reasonable overlap, to accommodate the various skill levels and job functions across a broad range of departments. But I had people in the department with thirty years of creating such scales, and I had to rely on them.

My function in those roles was to represent my staff to upper management and to give them the leeway to do their jobs well. I followed them, even as I led. I encouraged them and offered suggestions, but they knew that their expertise was what kept us functioning.

2.  When You Can’t Do It All

Make Your Work/Life Balance a Conscious ChoiceIn other situations, even when I was the expert, I had to delegate to others to get everything done. That was not always comfortable for me.

I have never been one to think that my way is the only way to do something. But I am quick to make decisions, and I will step in when others don’t. But I can’t do everything, even when I think I should.

As a result, there are times when I have to deliberately hold myself back to let others lead. I have to choose where to spend my time, and which priorities I need to focus on. The rest of the work needs to be delegated.

Yet, this is a difficult thing to do. Early in my career, I supervised another attorney who did the same type of projects that I did. I could have done them better and more quickly than he did, but I couldn’t handle all of the work.

I got feedback that I was too quick to jump in and do things for this individual (when I had the time), or else I kept too much of a hands-off approach (when I didn’t have time to be bothered). The advice I got was that I needed to learn how to coach without taking over a project. I was hot or cold in working with this attorney; I needed to learn to be warm. Once a project had been delegated, I had to stay involved, but not too much.

3.  When Others Need to Learn

Employers, Be Strategic In Implementing Health Care ReformThere are other times when you could do the work, but you need to choose not to. One time, when our HR department was handling succession planning for each of the groups we supported, each of my staff had his or her own opinions on how to work with managers to gather the information. I sometimes had to bite my tongue because their methods weren’t mine, but as long as they met the deadlines I had set to have the information, I had to let them approach the work as they thought best.

My boss in my first supervisory position coached me, “Even if other people won’t do something as well as you, you have to let them do it their way. That’s how they learn, and how they take accountability.” I have tried to remember this advice.

And then, as the follower, I have tried to discern when to offer advice and when to keep my mouth shut. No, other people won’t do it my way. And they might not even do it as well as I would. But they will in all likelihood do it mostly right and get an acceptable result. And the next time they will do it better. If I stay out of the way.

What To Do When You’re the Follower

In her post, Ms. Asmus lists several things to think about when following:

  • Know when to step back and let someone else lead.
  • Be coachable.
  • Be approachable.
  • Listen and encourage new ideas from others.
  • Let go when the fight isn’t worth it.
  • Support others on the team.
  • Model all the above behaviors for others.

This advice seems spot on as I reflect on how I followed in the situations I described above – when I didn’t know as much as others, when I couldn’t do it all, and when others needed the opportunity to learn. Like most aspects of leadership, knowing when to follow is a matter of judgment and grace.

Are there other situations when you, though nominally a leader, have had to be a follower?

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