Want to lead? Follow first

Updated: Nov 28, 2018


Great leaders were followers once, and learned from being led

Great leaders stand apart. Their time in our lives are marked by periods where we achieve, develop and grow - perhaps beyond our own imagined limits. We find ourselves overcoming obstacles, perhaps failure, conflict - they lift us to heights we otherwise would not have reached. We yearn for their return when they leave our lives, such is the difference they make. And yet, others don't have the same impact or worse, they have the opposite impact. Why?


Certainly it's a question of skill. A lack of competence and capability. Perhaps a lack of talent, of instinct and application. But why do great leaders have it, and bad ones don't?

The great leaders have a few things in common. One thing - a major and most important thing is they first followed. They first were led. They not only learned from the leadership of others, but they learned how to operate and perform first under the leadership of others. They learned their trade under the tutelage of others, no doubt some being good and some bad.... but nonetheless the following was an essential precursor to their own eventual leadership capability.


"He who has learned how to obey will know how to command" ~ Solon

We see similar principles have applied to almost every skilled profession we have in society. Great cooks first washed pots. Gordon Ramsey learned under Marco Pierre White. Jamie Oliver learned under Gennaro Contaldo. Apprenticeships are a time honoured, tried and tested formula for skill development. Plumbers, builders, electricians, doctors, lawyers, engineers all base their technical and professional development on this model.


So why not leaders? Why do we look at leaders and see not their progression, their years of following and being led which helped frame their capability and competence that we see before us? Julius Caesar was 44 when he commenced his campaigns in Gaul at the head of 4 Legions. He had spent 29 years in the military being led and following others up to that point. Take a moment and consider your favourite leaders - perhaps you worked for them or you idolise them. Stop and consider for a moment what their experience had been prior to you working within their team, or coming to the notoriety for which you idolise them. I'll bet you that every single one of them had been followers. They had themselves been led, and this was instrumental to their development into the great leader that you hold in such high regard.


It must be true then, that if this is a hallmark of great leaders then it must not be for bad ones. Yes, it's true but it's not a rule. Like any apprentice who gets their ticket the process itself does not guarantee exception and greatness. Some just fail to develop, or the competencies and capabilities are just not as rich and deep in everyone. For those who have never failed and never been led it must be impossible to step into a leadership role and be effective, let alone great having had no personal experience of what either actually looks like in the real world.


"The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers" ~ Ralph Nader

So how is it that in business, government, not for profit, sport, politics - almost every area of our lives that those making the hiring decisions - choosing who are leaders will be - can get it so wrong? Well, you'd be amazed. I have seen a board choose a CEO simply because they considered an internal candidate from the talent pool had "served their time". That individual was fired 2 years later for incompetence. Another CEO was appointed having never once in their life worked within a team. They had never followed, or been led, and when called to lead their organisation has presided over a share decline of 429%. I've seen sales people with the highest quotas promoted to leadership positions because they were the best at sales and then preside over the destruction of a company's sales capability and effectiveness.


Leadership is so many things... but perhaps best summarised it's a mixture of skill, art and science. There's probably a little bit of black magic in there as well..... or at least secret sauce that we bring as individuals to the game. But it is for certain, and without a doubt something which is learned in major part from following and being led. Experience, as in many things contributes greatly to those who become great leaders and stand apart and make us feel the way we do when we follow and are led by them.


What do you think? Can great leaders be great leaders if they have never followed or been led themselves? Have you known a great leader who didn't? Can you get it all from a book and be a great leader? Or do you think great leaders are born possessing the competencies and capabilities for great leadership? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.


About the author: Allan Evans is Founder and CEO of The Solution Engine, with a keen interest in leadership and organisational culture, design and effectiveness. The Solution Engine is a business advisory, consulting and solutions agency helping clients across Australia to create or unlock value in their enterprise with offices in Sydney and Newcastle. For more articles visit The Solution Engine's blog.

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