Leading by Following

Image borrowed from here

I thought it was somewhat self-serving when my manager sent out an email to the team with a link to an article at Forbes about being a great follower, but it was actually a very good read. The article, titled “The 11 Leadership Secrets You’ve Never Heard About,” makes the point that the leaders among us are simply the best followers, and it reminds us that our leaders have bosses and are followers in their own right. The list of leadership secrets is about being a great follower, and it’s an excellent list.

There were a few items that really spoke to me, and it’s true: these are the things the leaders of tomorrow are doing today.

Great Followers are Great Communicators

I loved this one. (Not surprising, as somebody who clearly values communication!) More specifically, I love the idea of proactively providing relevant information. If I see something and dig into it, totaling numbers and gathering statistics, I’m going to send an email with that information displayed several different ways. Here’s a table. Here’s a graph. Here’s a 3D graph! When somebody else on the team sends out an email with data they’ve collected in a cool graph, I’m absolutely delighted.

And, to the point of the article, I’ve never received an email of this nature from somebody that I didn’t consider a leader on the team.

Great Followers are Goal Driven

There’s a lot of material out there about being successful by setting goals for yourself and being goal-oriented. Earlier in my career, I wanted to embrace this and set goals for myself, but I felt like I was a really bad goal-setter. I simply didn’t know what kinds of goals to set for myself! I like the text in the article on this item because it doesn’t just say, “set goals for yourself.” Instead, it talks about working forward versus working backward.

Great followers reason backwards: they use future goals to prioritize today’s “activity.” Poor followers reason forward: They react to their in-box and email in the forlorn hope that just staying busy will magically produce results somewhere “down the road.”

Well put! The amount of work will always be unending. If you focus solely on fighting it down, you’ll probably be stuck in the same role doing the same thing for longer than you care for. Conversely, if you can identify ways to improve the processes of today down the road, you can steer your activities in the right direction. Once you achieve the goal, you can get on to the next thing!

Great Followers Show Don’t Tell

This is another one that’s near and dear to my heart. I get pulled into a lot of what-do-you-think, consultation-type meetings. In those meetings, I’ll throw out ideas that seem like they should work. Energized by a potentially great idea, I often start putting together a proof-of-concept as soon as I get back to my desk. It’s exciting to me to send an email with a fully-functional example of what I suggested might work an hour before. Unfortunately, based on the amount of emails like this that I receive, I don’t think many people are doing this. Additionally, showing up to a meeting where it’s clear that you’ve put effort into your preparation will impress the room. Take time to prepare a PowerPoint presentation or print handouts on the topic you’re presenting or might be consulted on. You’ll be better prepared, and it’ll be noticed by peers and leadership, alike.

Great Followers Offer Solutions

This one’s definitely a favorite. Do you have a problem? What can you do about it? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your options? This is decision-maker training. When you’re new at it, evaluate the situation and bring solutions along with your problems to your team leads and managers. You may not come up with the best option, but that’s a learning opportunity. Over time, you’ll learn how to identify the best options, making you a leader capable of finding the best options to other people’s problems: you’ll be down with OPP.

Great Followers are Loyal

I’ll comment on just one more item from the list, and that’s loyalty. The article points out that a great follower will go out of their way to make their boss look good, which really couldn’t be more true. (I was once again chuckling at the self-serving nature of this statement in the article sent from my boss…) It’s true though; a great follower will take pride in making their team great. When it’s time to look for emerging leaders, the best teams are probably a good place to start.

The rest of the list is very good, too, and these were just my favorites. Check out the article and think about how you can improve as a follower. Focus on being a great follower, and you’ll naturally evolve into a leader.

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