Learning to Follow Before You Lead

There is no limit to the information available on leadership. It is a popular topic, and one that garners a substantial volume of perspectives, advice and suggestions. What is less apparent is the lack of literature on how to be good follower, or even more how learning to become a good leader in some way is predicated on learning to become a good follower. (Credit to: David Carpenter for bringing this to my attention via a Twitter discussion one evening several months ago @dave_carpenter)

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The world of management and leadership embraces the team, the manager, or the leader. It takes for granted that leaders will have good followers, but there has been little discussion or attention on how being a good leader might require you to learn how to follow. What do we mean here?

Characteristics of Following
Learning to follow means that you will have some humility. It also requires that you are able to work well with others, and are willing to use influence, rather than resistance with others. For some, it means developing an openness to others, willingness to accept differences, and to trust others. Where else do we obtain those critical leadership skills than by learning to follow and model after others in leadership positions?

Following means you seek to be mentored. Many reporting relationships in organizations are seen as a requirement, not a privilege. For any number of reasons, “the boss” is something that needs to be endured rather than honored and appreciated. There are circumstances where those in leadership positions are ill suited, and instead of mentoring, they create fear, avoidance, or simply disdain with the followers. Still others in the following role are unfortunate to have bad mentors. Leaders need to remember that in many cases their example is the early learning for the next generation. Poor leaders create poor followers, that develop poor orientations.

Following is a privilege. Those that follow should consider their role as a stewardship, and one that can breath life into their futures. Instead of viewing the leader with disdain or as something to be endured, even the most difficult boss can have something to teach. If you’re fortunate to have good mentors or leaders, then this can provide solid orientations, for the future ahead. Following a leader is not just an obligation required by policy, it is way to add critical meaning to your chosen life work.

To become a good leader, you need to first become a good follower. It’s like learning math: You have to complete algebra before trigonometry. Becoming a leader is something that you gain from embracing a solid following role. There is a learning path, and those that embrace richness from a good leader can surely enable themselves to replicate the solid leadership values and approaches that have been bestowed.

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