I can’t help but wonder how many leaders believe they’ll never need to be a follower again, as if being a follower were a rite of passage that never needs to be revisited once the leadership title has been achieved. These thoughts transpired as I recently completed a strategic leadership assignment where I was required to determine which position, leader or follower I currently fit into most comfortably and least comfortably. Identifying the roles came relatively quickly; however, breaking down the whys around each, especially the role I experience the most discomfort in, caused me to pause, reflect, and uncover a few great reminders to myself and others serving in leadership roles.
So back to the assignment and the questions. What is my least challenging role? The leadership role, of course! Anyone who knows me, or has worked with me, will tell you that I’m often in a leadership position in some capacity. My accountability, reliability, professionalism, drive, communication skills, and self-discipline often make me a natural fit for the role. Aside from all of that, I’m a Mom and became a leader the instant my two boys were born. Additionally, I can’t help but become energized by leading, especially when I see followers developing and growing into leaders themselves. After all, leaders growing other leaders is not only a sign of a successful leader; it’s also the quality of a servant leader, the kind of leader I aspire to be.
That brings me to my most challenging role, which is follower. The trickiest part of the assignment was answering why being a follower is so challenging? That question forced me to put my mind around the unease I experience when I’m in the follower position, and attempt to determine its cause. Luckily for me, I’ve had these feelings more than a few times lately while taking on more follower positions in both my professional and personal life. For example I recently stepped down as being a LifeGroup leader at church and I stepped down from the COO role at work.
Stepping down as a LifeGroup leader at our church simply was a choice I had to make due to lack of time to commit in the capacity I felt was necessary to do the position correctly for the church and the attendees within my group. I fully intended to remain involved in the group while taking on less responsibility, however, that became extremely difficult. As I saw a group that I "birthed" change hands and start to take a new shape and direction, I found the desire to participate dissipated rather quickly. Honestly, stepping away from leadership for this group was more difficult than I ever imagined, and there was a bit of grief that came along with letting it go that I never anticipated I’d feel.
I stepped down from my leadership position as COO at The Horizon Group to pursue an exciting opportunity as a financial advisor within the firm – the first female advisor the group has had. Although I still remain a leader of a small group of Associate Advisors, my leadership responsibilities within the group are far less demanding, and my follower role is more pronounced. Like the LifeGroup scenario, fitting into this role has been extremely difficult, especially as I’ve watched details that I fretted over get brushed to the side and new policies and procedures put in place of the ones that I had worked so hard to establish. On top of that, my co-workers continue to seek me out as they vent their frustrations about the changes, and I can't help but feel like I'm disappointing them by not fixing things as I did so often in the past. Although I love my new career path, it's been tough to stay satisfied in the seat as a follower.
I must admit, both of these situations have been challenging. They’ve hit me emotionally and mentally in ways I could never have planned for. However, going through them has shed light on three valuable lessons that I needed to be reminded of for myself and feel are important to share with other leaders as well.
3 Leadership Lessons
After thinking about it, in both situations, my discomfort with leadership changing hands wasn’t because I didn't want to let go and see my ideas fade away. The discomfort really came from the fact that the new leadership and I didn't necessarily possess shared values. As a result, I struggled to align my values with theirs, which were changing the overall groups dynamic. I felt a sense of “not fitting in” and discomfort, which was odd after being so involved and comfortable for so long. Realizing it was my core values that were the issue meant I had some tough decisions to make which ultimately led me to stepping away from one of the groups altogether. The other, I realized I could still stay true to myself and values in the way I do my work, however, a core values check up from time to time might be necessary.
Following with Leadership Qualities
Even as a follower, I still had individuals who continued to look up to me as a leader, and what I realized was that I could always follow with the qualities of a good leader. For example, I could listen to a fellow co-worker and still help them resolve their issues. I also noticed that even in a follower position, eyes were watching, and ears were listening to me for direction. It became apparent that I could influence the overall office environment by showing the new leadership my utmost respect in hopes that others would follow suit. I could also empathize with the new leadership when they faced difficult days and offer possible solutions if they were open to it. Being a follower doesn’t mean that I have to change who I am, or how I act. It just means that I have someone else to report to, and there is a line that I must be cognizant of.
A Different Perspective
Lastly, I realized that stepping back into a follower position allows me to observe how other followers perceive leadership and notice qualities that I may want to work on when I take on a leadership role again. I also found being in this position puts me in a less threatening position to have open conversations with co-workers about my leadership skills. This is very similar to the tv show, "Undercover Boss." I can now relate to many of those CEO’s who are given a different perspective and walk away from the experience being very humbled by seeing and hearing things they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to experience or have the capacity to experience while serving in a leadership role.
To address my original thought, I certainly hope leaders don’t believe they won't ever need to be in a follower's position again. I think the stronger and more confident someone is as a leader, the more willing they should be to follow in some capacity. Although there are plenty of lessons learned when working as a leader, stepping back to reflect on core values, demonstrate what it’s like to be a good follower while still using leadership qualities, and seeing things through the lens of others could be a huge eye-opener. In fact, it may influence and shape how one will choose to lead as future opportunities open up.
One last thought! My mom often told me while growing up, “Don’t forget where you came from.” This saying has come to mind a lot lately when facing the situations, I’ve been in and the decisions I have had to make. Where you came from has more than likely made you the person you are today. So, to put the saying into leadership context, don’t forget what it’s like to be a follower! The follower you were yesterday, made you into the leader you are today. The follower you might become tomorrow, will make you the leader you are in the days to come.