There is such huge pressure in our generation to be a leader. But the truth is, most of us don’t have what it takes. Wait, what? Stay with me folks …
It seems like many of us (myself included) don’t want to be a leader unless we are the leader.
But the reality is that not all of us can be or should always be the leader—and that’s OK.
Be a “Lead-Follower”
There are several fallacies about leadership floating around in our culture. Two of the biggest misconceptions are:
1) You have to be in charge to lead.
2) The leader is the most important person on the team.
The current culture among the “leaders” of millennials creates a problem, because it implies no one wants to follow. This effectively either tramples the chief in a stampede of wannabes or leaves them standing alone with no one to lead into the fight.
Understanding your role on a team is very important and often humbling, but if we understand the importance of following, it can create a much healthier culture of leadership.
I first made this discovery when I experienced it for myself. Some time ago, I was placed in an environment as a team member while one of my best friends was chosen as the leader.
Though I would have never admitted it, I was upset. The problem was, I felt more qualified for the job skills-wise and at least equally as capable as a leader.
I was supportive on the outside, but I threw a month’s worth of hissy-fits and pity-parties that I only invited myself to. But the worst part didn’t come until I began to realize for myself what the others had already known: He was ready to lead, and I wasn’t quite there yet.
I arrived at this point because of how gracious he was with me as a friend and a leader. Knowing my frustration, he showed just how capable he was. This was one of the most humbling experiences in my life to date. I had to make the decision to be a follower if I wanted to learn and prepare myself for when I got my chance. So I elected myself as the “lead follower.”
For the Not-Yet Leader
If you are the leader type (or you want to be a leader in the future), the role of “lead follower” is the best practice you can have until you get your shot. Every great leader has to have at least one untitled leader among the followers, someone who will be there at all costs. These guys and gals are actually the most important people on the team, because they help unite the team under the leader toward a powerful cause.
Here are some practical ways to practice the invaluable skill of lead-following:
Be the first one on board.
Other people in the group already know you are a leader too. The fact that you confirm the leader’s decisions will increase their authority. This doesn’t mean you unquestioningly accept everything they say, but it means you don’t talk behind their back or act like you always know better. When you buy in, everyone else will buy in.
Don’t just point out problems. Offer solutions and add value to the team outside of decision-making.
Make the leader look good.
Support the leader’s decision and go out of your way to find a way to make it work, even if you may have done things differently.
Honor the leader.
Public endorsement earns you private influence. Genuinely praise the leader in public and show that you are behind the cause. This will build trust, causing your opinion to carry more weight with the leader.
For the Already Leader
The U.S. has one of the youngest populations among developed countries, with a median age of 35 years. There are a growing number of young leaders. More than ever before, we are seeing a shift in the age spectrum in corporations, organizations and politics.
In a lot of ways, it’s no longer about how old you are but how capable and creative you are. That’s good news for us, but we have to be ready. If you are on the fast-track to a high level of influence relatively early in your career, pause for a second.
Let’s look at this like a game of chess: There is a reason the King doesn’t lead the charge. He mostly sits back and observes. He thinks ahead and makes strategic use of the available pieces around him. The King is limited in his movements, and he would get pulverized if he charged off more than one space at a time trying to overrun his followers that protect him.
Here are a few things to remember about your role as a leader and the importance of key followers:
Make the tough discovery.
You are nothing without the people around you. No matter how smart, creative, sly or pretty you are, you can’t win by yourself. There’s just too much to be done.
Find the people in your group that you can trust. Cherish them with everything you have and take them to the top with you.
Praise in public, correct in private.
This creates loyalty and respect, because your team knows you are behind them and that you care. Show them you trust them, and challenge them to step up.
No leader can work on something when they are too busy working in it. Create sustainability and find and a successor, because there is no legacy without both. Train one of your promising people to be a lead-follower, empower them to take charge, and prepare them for their shot.
Adam is a twentysomething who enjoys working with startups, playing music and eating Cap'n Crunch. His blog Heart Meets Hustle aims to help young professionals connect passion and profit.