in: Career & Wealth, Featured, Leadership

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Don’t Just Lead Well, Follow Well

Soldier training his fellows.

Media and literature on leadership abound. Everywhere you look, there’s another book, podcast, or motivational speech on how to become a better leader.

People are clearly very interested in the topic, which isn’t at all surprising. Nearly everyone is a leader is some aspect of their lives — whether at home, at work, at church, or in clubs, sports teams, and other extracurricular and civic organizations.

It’s a funny thing though . . . given the fact there are so many people leading out there, there must subsequently exist even more folks who are following them. And yet, almost no material — no books, no podcasts, no lectures — exist on how to become a good follower. The topic is almost completely absent from education and our cultural conversation.

The public’s utter lack of interest in learning how to follow isn’t any more surprising than its keen interest in leadership. Seeing ourselves as leaders warms our pride and enhances our sense of identity. Everyone wants to see themselves as self-sufficient, independent iconoclasts — leading the charge, marching to the beat of their own drummer. The Chief. The Big Cheese. The Head Honcho.

But nobody wants to see themselves as a follower. Yuck. The word crinkles the nose. Leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Followers are dependent, conformist, submissive. Not at all like how we want to see ourselves.

In our egalitarian society, everyone wishes to feel they are the equal of everyone else. As much as possible, leaders and followers disguise the power dynamic that exists between them. Corporations and organizations emphasize the fact that everyone is a “team” or a “family.”

Reality stubbornly belies this bit of theater, though.

People are at least as likely, if not much more so, to be followers as leaders. After all, there are more employees than managers, more players than coaches, more readers than authors, more students than teachers, more congregants than pastors, more believers than gods.

Even if never spoken of, a hierarchy of authority and power exists in nearly every group and organization. Certain individuals have the power to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience, and others do not. And you do obey them (even though, here again, is a word we hate); you do show up on time to work, and turn in your assignments on the date your professors ask, and run sprints when your coach blows his whistle.

Rather than be delusional and self-deceiving, we ought to own up to the fact that we all find ourselves as both leaders and followers in life, and we ought not to completely ignore the latter role in favor of the former. The fact you’re a follower may be an unpleasant truth to countenance, but it’s a truth nonetheless, and should be faced directly.

Here’s another truth: acknowledging the fact that you’re a follower doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Despite the cultural baggage the term has accumulated, knowing how to follow well is a mark of a superior man (and leader), rather than that of a sheep. Just like leadership, following effectively is a skill that can be developed, and can be just as important to your success.

But, But . . . Nazis! The Obligatory Disclaimer

While being a leader has naturally always been favored over being a follower, the latter was historically still seen as a potentially positive and virtuous role. Following didn’t get a bad name until after WWII; you know, because of all those German goose steppers. Many Nazis blamed the atrocities they committed on the fact they were simply “following orders,” and obedience came to be inextricably associated with blind obedience. And so we have a very visceral reaction against the idea of being a follower (even if, as just mentioned, all of us are exactly that!).

But simple logic and common sense should dictate that good orders, which lead to positive results, can just as readily be followed as bad ones, which lead to evil. The dynamic of leading and following is what keeps communities and countries safe, charities serving, and companies innovating. Following is also not invariably myopic, but can be done with eyes wide open.

All of the below should thus be read with the very obvious caveat that one should never follow something blindly, and never obey orders that are unethical and immoral. Following well should never mean completely giving up your autonomy, but rather willfully choosing to place yourself under the leadership of a person/organization in which you believe, agreeing to follow what he/it asks of you, until which that person/organization violates the fundamental tenets under which you signed on. At which point, you withdraw your consent to follow.

Leadership/followship is a two-way street — a covenant — in which each side must uphold their part of the bargain.

Why You Should Embrace Being a Follower

Following Is Learning

If following has gotten a bad name, maybe we should re-brand it as “holding an apprenticeship.” Typically, those who are over you, are placed there for a reason; they’ve got more seniority, experience, and acumen. They’ve got something to teach you. They’re the mentor, and you’re the mentee, and you can get the most out of this apprenticeship by checking your ego and following what they ask you to do.

Oftentimes we think we know if something will work or not, or is a good idea or not, or if we will or won’t like something, but we don’t actually know until we try it. Until we do the thing. In following a leader’s instructions, we can gain a very concrete set of knowledge.

Of course, sometimes people are placed in positions of authority for the wrong reasons. They don’t have more wisdom or insight. Even then though, we can still learn — we gain an education in what not to do. What doesn’t work. And these lessons can be just as valuable for when we hopefully one day find ourselves in a similar leadership role.

In following a certain path, you might also simply learn that you’re in the wrong line of work, or at the wrong church or school. But you’ve got to sincerely try to follow the prescribed program first before you truly make that determination.

Following Is Liberating

Leaders do have more authority than followers; there’s no way around that fact. They can tell you what to do, but you can’t tell them what to do. Their position gives them power, and that’s a cool thing — they’ve got the freedom to do more stuff.

But, with power comes responsibility. Since they’re in charge, the weight of driving for success and the costs of experiencing failure sit directly on their shoulders. It’s great to be king, but a dagger’s always hanging over your head.

When you’re a follower, you have less power, but also less responsibility. And that can actually be a great thing too.

There are certain areas of life where you certainly do want to be calling the shots — the power is worth the responsibility. But to hold ultimate responsibility in every area of life would drive a man insane. Nobody can be an expert in every subject. Nobody has the bandwidth to make decisions on every issue. It’s psychologically healthy to have aspects of your life where you can simply submit — where you can let someone else be the leader and expert and tell you exactly what to do. This delegation of authority can in fact liberate you to do your best work. When you have just one specific job to do, and instructions on how to do it, you can concentrate on doing it well.

For example, I don’t want to be a leader in fitness programming; I don’t want to come up with my own workouts for myself. I tried that and got very mediocre results. Instead, I happily let my Starting Strength coach tell me exactly what to do every day. I happily submit to him. As a result, I’ve made significant progress with my weightlifting and have never been stronger. Plus, I can use the bandwidth I save by being a follower in the gym, and put it towards the areas where I do want to lead.

The same dynamic plays out in other aspects for life. There are advantages to being an entrepreneur to be sure, but also advantages to being an employee; freed from the burdens of managerial administration, the latter is liberated to concentrate on a more focused job, and to often leave that job at the office at the end of the day. Similarly, there are advantages to being a coach, but also much liberation in simply being free to play as an athlete.

Following Helps You Achieve a Higher Purpose

There are many great things that individuals can accomplish on their own. But there are many more which require a team, an organization, an institution. A quarterback can’t win the Super Bowl by himself. Charitable organizations exponentially increase the reach and impact one person alone can make. And though the idea has become fantastically unpopular, large institutions can accomplish projects that would otherwise be untenable. Governments protect and manage democracy. Militaries win world wars. Even churches, one of the most unpopular institutions of all, magnify spirituality beyond its potential as a personal pursuit.

All these teams and organizations, by necessity, are structured by varying degrees of hierarchy. Those corporations that have been entranced by the idea of complete egalitarianism in the abstract, have found that the concept leads to chaos and dysfunction when implemented in reality. For a large project to be achieved, for an expansive mission to be accomplished, some kind of chain of command must be in place.

When you place yourself within such a hierarchy, you give up some of your power and freedom — the ability to do everything your way and call all your own shots. But you gain the freedom to be part of something larger than yourself, to be part of an effort working towards a goal you could not accomplish on your own.

Following Is the Road to Leadership

Oftentimes we act as if following and leading are two dichotomous things. But they’re strongly related: good followers make good leaders. If you can’t follow well, you can’t lead well. Good leaders never ask their subordinates to do something they aren’t willing to do, and haven’t in fact done themselves.

As The Soldier’s Guide, an Army manual from 1952 puts it,

“One of the most important things a leader needs is the ability to lead himself. That’s why all our truly great commanders have been outstanding in self-discipline. It takes a strong self-discipline to be a good follower, and if you aren’t a good follower, chances are you will never be much of a leader. TO GIVE ORDERS, YOU MUST FIRST KNOW HOW TO TAKE THEM.”

Lord Moran put the same sentiment this way: “Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command.”

It’s not just that good followers have discipline, which good leaders also need. But good followers also know that ego is the enemy, and evince the kind of humility that’s absolutely crucial in a successful leader. People who think they’re “too good” to follow instructions in a lower-level position, invariably don’t have the attitude to succeed at a higher level one.

How to Be a Good Follower

“Whatever thou art, act well thy part.”  

The above phrase was inscribed on the door of a castle in Scotland. And it’s an excellent philosophy to adopt.

You’ll find yourself in different positions throughout your life. Sometimes you’ll be a leader. Sometimes you’ll be a follower. Whatever your position is, do it to the best of your ability. Your job may seem small and unimportant, but it’s likely essential. Without it, the organization you’re in might not function to its utmost. Put the focus on the larger mission, rather than yourself. Once you do, you’ll discover more meaning and satisfaction in your work. 

Help Others Reach Their Potential (And You’ll Reach Yours)

A good follower doesn’t have his focus just on himself and how he can advance his own goals. Leaders can see that and will either 1) find it obnoxious, or 2) find it threatening. Either result can stymie your influence in an organization.

To avoid those outcomes, make it your goal to help your leaders and fellow teammates reach their potential. In other words, be as useful as you can. Hand over good ideas to your boss and don’t worry if you don’t get the credit. Volunteer to do the jobs that no one else wants to do. Act as a booster for your fellow teammates. Anticipate the needs of those around you before they arise. Work to make everyone look good.

Those with a short-term, scarcity mindset will read that advice and think, “Man, that’s a recipe for being taken advantage of and walked over.” While it’s true some leaders will abuse your generosity, good leaders recognize and appreciate subordinates who strive to make their job easier and they’ll reward those subordinates with promotions and/or raises.

As Ryan Holiday wrote in Ego is the Enemy, “Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.” 

Don’t Follow Mindlessly

Typically when people hear the word “follower” they think of some mindless drone that replies with “I was just following orders,” whenever confronted with a problem. These people are followers, but they’re defective. While they’ll do what you say, they’ll only do what you say. Not an iota more. They lack the ability to exercise practical wisdom and make decisions on their own that will advance an organization or a mission. These mindless followers abdicate responsibility by hiding behind the excuse “I just do what I’m told.” Instead of making a leader’s job easier, these automatons can make his life miserable by constantly going to him with questions about every little thing or passing the buck to him when things go wrong.

Being a good follower paradoxically requires you to act like a leader. You have to be willing to raise concerns when you feel an idea will be unwise and counterproductive. You have to be willing to take responsibility for problems that you’re involved in even though you technically did things “by the book.” You have to be willing to build on the instruction you’re given, to get creative, and to take action even though no one explicitly told you to act.

What to Do When You Disagree With What a Leader Asks of You

You have complete autonomy in choosing which commitments you agree to undertake, and you should be as well-informed as possible when making such decisions as to what the commitment will entail and what will be expected of you.

After you make the commitment, you have less autonomy in how to act; barring being asked to do something immoral or unethical, if you remain with the position, you are obligated to perform the role’s attendant duties, even if you disagree with an idea, or think there’s a better way, or simply don’t feel like it. That’s what you signed up for and/or are being paid for. That’s what you agreed to do.

Keep in mind that in any organization or institution, leaders are invariably going to make bad moves and give frustratingly ineffective orders. Being asked to sometimes do dumb things isn’t necessarily a sign you’re in the wrong place, it’s just par for the course. As long as the job still has its satisfactions and consolations, and the team is still moving towards a good goal — however painstakingly slowly and haphazardly — it can still be fulfilling to stay on.

But what if you are consistently given orders/tasks that you find egregiously dumb or mind-meltingly counterproductive, and which you balk at carrying out? Several choices remain open to you:

  • Patiently stay the course, earning your way into a position where you’ll become the leader and have the power to finally implement your own ideas. Even before you make it into the leadership position, the organization’s culture may still badly need the leaven of your influence. You may decide that you can still be a force for good in making small changes, and decide to do what’s necessary to earn some cred and work your way up the chain of command, in order to one day call the big shots yourself.
  • Modify expectations of what your following will mean. There may be cases where, though you have stopped supporting an organization’s tenets, you still wish to participate in it to some degree. For example, you may have lost your faith, but continue attending a church for the sake of your wife and children. In such a case, you ought to simply be transparent with other members about the state of your commitment, so they can appropriately manage their expectations. Most people are quite tolerant of this stance; they’d rather someone be honest, and say they won’t do something upfront, than say yes to something on which they really don’t plan to follow through.
  • Quit the role/job/position outright. Sometimes you’re simply too much at loggerheads with the leadership to continue on. If you’ve raised your concerns with leadership to no avail, and done your best to make it work without progress, walk away (ideally without burning bridges).

The one thing you shouldn’t do, is to continue on with your role, while sandbagging your effort. You become an albatross to the group’s goals, which is unfair to the leader, and unfair to your teammates. To keep a position, while willfully failing to follow instructions and perform one’s duties, is to flatter yourself that your personal, secret defiance counts as a real rebellion, while actually lacking the backbone to publicly break away. You remain a conformist, while losing your integrity.

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