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  • Writer's pictureMichael Kenny

Leader-Follower



I have always believed that to be a good leader you need to be a good follower. History is littered with examples of leaders who delegated critical parts of their enterprise to others who were more competent in a particular area. From Ernest Shackleton delegating the safety of his stranded crew on Elephant Island to Frank Wild or leveraging Frank Worsley's navigation skills to find the proverbial needle in a haystack of South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, to President Ronald Regan "The Great Delegator" being specific about what he wanted and then delegating all sorts of important decisions to his staff - James Baker and Colin Powell in particular.


I learned a valuable lesson in this regard at a management consulting off-site many years ago. It was a typical off-site with some "training". The training exercise was supposedly in team building, but the task was to simulate the aerial bombing of another teams base - a paper exercise, thankfully. There were choices of planes and missiles and bombs and lots of instructions. Everyone in the group got their "Rambo" on and grabbed a whiteboard marker to "lead" the mission. After a lot of "leadership" and general confusion, we filed our flight plan and "bombed" another teams base - or so we thought, just before we got blown to smithereens ourselves. The training instructor did a debrief and asked us what we learned, our teamwork and our roles. In a moment of genius, he asked us if we had each person in the right role, a question that never occurred to us in the fight to grab the whiteboard marker and demonstrate our "leadership" skills. It turned out - and this was pure coincidence - that the most junior member of our team who literally had joined the firm a few days previously was ex Air Force and had more than a passing knowledge of the Air Force Joint Mission Planning System (JMPS) but was unable to get a word in amongst all the "leadership" from his more senior consulting colleagues. Needless to say, I never felt like less of a leader. Sometimes the best leadership you can provide is to buy the pizza and watch more competent team members do their thing.


So to be a good leader, you need to be a good follower. This is critical for alignment as the key question to the executive team is, "Are you prepared to be a leader or a follower?" If one is only prepared to be leader or unwilling to be led by the current leader or has a lack of confidence in the leader then alignment is virtually impossible.


With the leader-follower behavior required for alignment comes clarity as to roles and responsibilities (contextual and temporal) an absence of malicious second-guessing replaced by a willingness to complete tasks assigned by the leader even if one disagrees - "disagree and commit" after healthy debate - is always appropriate.


So the next time you are on an executive leadership team ask "Are you prepared to be a leader or a follower? Do we have clarity as to roles and responsibilities? and Can we disagree and commit - after healthy debate?" Ultimately you are the only person who can answer the first question but if you are not prepared to be a follower you owe it to the team to make that clear and avoid malicious second-guessing and instead focus on leadership alignment.


What is alignment? How do we align around an initiative? How do we know we are aligned? These are really hard questions. Questions we are answering at AlignedAround. I would welcome your thoughts.


References

Lansing, A., & Philbrick, N. (2015). Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Basic Books.

Reeves, R. (2005). President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. Simon & Schuster.]



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