OK, do a quick scan of your bookshelf, podcasts, and mental catalog of leadership talks. How many have you heard on the art of following well.
After looking through literally hundreds of those artifacts collected over twenty years, I found exactly…. ONE! (Incidentally, it was a very useful talk given by a leader at a high-growth church known for its strong leadership.)
Why is that? Why is it that when someone quotes the tired saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” we really see only one good option – to lead! I’d guess there are a lot of reasons, but our world certainly glorifies heroic leaders whose brilliance single-handedly tilts the earth to the benefit of their grateful followers.
Here’s the irony: nearly every great leader needs to also be a great follower. We are all accountable to someone – a boss, a board, shareholders, partners, an electorate – and we owe those people our best service. And yes, that service sometimes involves doing things their way instead of our own. It may be a blow to our egos, but that’s what it takes to follow well sometimes. (It also involves giving straight information, pushing back when we think leaders are missing something, and keeping our promises to our leaders – but those are topics for a future post.)
This ability to be influenced is a pretty good indicator of the quality of relationships we are bound to have as leaders or followers. John Gottman, a leading relationship researcher, says that a good predictor for marital health or breakdown is how open the partners are to influence. Those who allow their partners to influence their decisions and way of working typically have longer and happier marriages than those who resist influence. (Incidentally, he also finds that women tend to accept influence more than men. Sorry guys…)
So if we want to improve our relationships (and increase our influence), we can ask ourselves the question, “How good am I at following?” Counter-intuitive as it seems, it might just give us clues for growth.