September 2012 | 

Lead Better by Knowing When to Follow

know when to follow

In a leadership rut? Having trouble getting others — even yourself — motivated? According to Greg Shea, adjunct professor of management and faculty associate of the Center of Leadership and Change Management at Wharton, you’re probably defining your role too narrowly. “The common perception of the leader is the lone actor. It’s focused on the individual. When one person takes on all the responsibility, all the rewards, and all the blame, it can both hold them back and burn them out.”

It’s an obvious point, but leaders need followers. “At its core, leadership must be relational or it doesn’t exist,” says Shea. He explains: “Astronauts are often viewed as leaders, but there are literally thousands of people on the ground who make space exploration possible. It’s a complex set of relationships in which astronauts rely heavily on the expertise of others to do their job. The interplay between the competencies of everyone on the team, including the leader, is what drives success.”

As learning director of The Leadership Journey: Creating and Developing Your Leadership, Shea often hears executives grapple with the lone-actor burden. “That narrow view can get you stuck, so [in the program] we’re intentional about challenging it. Leadership is complex. There needs to be some fluidity, with the leader sometimes stepping out of the position to follow. But when I call someone a good follower, they may get offended. Participants accept the attributes of a follower as important, but they don’t like the word, especially when it’s applied to them. It’s often viewed as subservient, not action-oriented. But because the leadership role is relational, there needs to be a positive acceptance of followership both in terms of the leader’s own ability to take on the role, and in terms of those on their team.”

Shea continues, “’Leader as follower’ might sound counterintuitive, but when you study great leaders, you can see pivotal moments when the role reversal was necessary. British explorer Ernest Shackleton is a great example. He was good at maintaining solid working relationships and he knew when to let someone else lead. When Shackleton and his crew became stranded after their ship sank, he had to rely on the ship’s carpenter [technically the second most important person in a wooden vessel] to construct a boat that could make an 800-mile, open-sea journey. Shackleton also deferred at times to the ship’s navigator. Although his leadership is credited with saving the lives of every one of his crewmen, it was in fact his willingness to step aside and follow the lead of others at key moments that contributed greatly to the successful ending.”

Knowing when to lead and when to follow, says Shea, begins with a self-assessment. “You need a strong sense of who you are and what you do well. When you’re aware of your limitations, you can surround yourself with people who are exceptional at what you’re not.”

Brent Ridge, CEO of the lifestyle brand Beekman 1802, agrees. “Leadership skills are more about pulling together the right ensemble than trying to create the right hierarchy. You need to understand what your employees’ true strengths and weaknesses are to leverage their talent.” Ridge credits the success of his company, which has grown by triple digits in each of its first four years of operation, to knowing how to put the ensemble together. “We truly understand every component of what we’re doing at all times. Then you can find the right people. It’s a problem when you end up with leaders who don’t understand those fundamentals.”

Senior leaders aren’t the only ones who need to create a strong team and defer at times to the expertise of others. Project managers must staff as broadly as possible, anticipating the strengths they will need and creating a blend of technical and relational skills. Shea notes, “Figure out who has the relationships that can help the team. You don’t want all technical experts, especially if you’re one. Selection becomes very important. The further you get in your career, the less it is about the skills you can develop in yourself and more about recognizing what you need around you in terms of others’ skills.”

But what about transitioning back to the leadership role once you’ve deferred to someone else? “Don’t worry about it,” says Shea. “Just consider the alternative, namely underperformance and a loss of credibility. The success of your team helps you build credibility as a leader. If the team does well, there’s an attribution effect. If they don’t get it right, or right enough, people will look at you, the leader, so work on your leadership and your followership, transitioning as needed between the roles. The best results come when you identify and leverage everyone’s strengths, not just your own.”