Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Risk of Following

You have heard the expression. "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes." There's a perception that there are leaders and followers, and that followers are nothing but the people who are unable to do anything or take real initiative without the prompting or directing of the leader. But this is selling followers short.

Followers create a culture in a community or organization. Most of us have been part of a community where a deficiency or inadequacy on the part of leadership was well known. I try to openly confess mine, that way everyone else knows that I know and we can all stop pretending. But some leaders are just blind to theirs.

When a follower notices this, he or she has a choice to make. Do I confront the leader in a humble, gracious yet straightforward way, or do I just keep my mouth shut and go along and hope the damage is kept to minimal levels? The problem is, when everyone stays silent, discontent builds and festers and erodes the community or organization from within. This is a culture we create as followers. Some of us complain among ourselves, hope for things to change magically and then escalate the corrosive kind of talk among ourselves until the damage is irreparable. We can take that road.

Or, we take a risk. We risk going to the leader and naming the elephant in the room that everyone sees except her or him. We lovingly, and with as much skill as possible, talk about the effects and fallout of what you, and/or the community or organization is missing from the leader that should be there. If the leader is wise, and has enough intellectual and emotional maturity to handle it, you will have helped to begin building a healthier culture where reality is free to be named and discussed. These kinds of followers are more valuable than gold to a smart leader.

Followers are not just sheep. Followers are absolutely essential to an organization, and good followers are essential to that organization's good health. And for those who aspire to leadership roles, this is so essential. Unless you know how to follow well, it is highly unlikely that you will ever lead well.

May you take the risk to speak boldly, graciously and with humility. May you love your family, organization or community enough to be committed to helping create a healthy culture. May you love those in leadership enough to add value to their leadership, and to serve them even when they are unaware of their need for it. May you and I be great followers.

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