Do you aspire to leadership? Are you a leader?
Are you a follower? Do you hope to be a follower?
Leadership is highly valued in our society. Following–not so much. Just as we’d never set out to become a drug addict, we don’t set out in life to become followers. Is this right? Can we all be leaders? Should we all? Is there anything wrong with being a follower?
There are many ways we face this issue in our daily lives, though we may be unaware of it. Every time we relate to our spouse, our friends, parents, children, relatives, co-workers, bosses, employees, government, spiritual advisors, community members and workers, we consider issues and ideas about leading and following. We constantly assess an unspoken pecking order, noticing who is in charge, who knows or does best, who answers to whom, who makes the best decisions and has the best ideas. We also notice who isn’t in charge, who doesn’t take initiative, who isn’t living up to the job of leader.
What we do with this constant stream of information about leaders and followers varies from person to person. Some of us align ourselves with the ones we perceive as strong leaders. Maybe we do it to hone our developing leadership skills. Maybe we do it to find a comfortable place to avoid leadership. Some may align with the other followers, either to enjoy camaradarie with like-minded peers or to rise as their leader. For whatever reason, we act out of preconceived and often subconscious ideas about what it means to be a leader and a follower.
Many people seem to think they should go into leadership because they enjoy telling others what to do, they think they can clearly see what others should do, they know they’re of the bossy sort, they don’t like being told what to do, or they are just plain lazy and want to direct others to work rather than do it themselves.
There seems to be a similar or paired strain of thought regarding followers. People seem to think followers are blind, mindless, gutless, weak mambies who, frankly, deserve to be taken advantage of since they don’t bother fending for themselves.
I beg to differ! There are better reasons to lead, and there is strength in following.
To illustrate my point, let us personify the aforementioned poorly-motivated leader and call it a man (no gender bias intended)–a man named Omniscient Leader–and the follower a woman (again, no gender bias) whose name is, coincidentally, Blind Follower. Now we’ll take these stereotypes to a ballroom dance lesson for some fancy footwork.
Omniscient Leader takes ahold of Blind Follower and pushes her around the room. He struts through these gruff movements, barking orders as he leads, ‘Box step! Again! Now fifth position, underarm turn and box step!’ Blind Follower does her best to anticipate the next step, keep her balance and look smooth and graceful, but she doesn’t remember what those terms mean anyway, and under this pressure she falls backward, twists off her heel and stops the dance. Omniscient Leader quickly points out her error, and Blind Follower readily takes the blame.
The dance instructor has his work cut out with this couple. They likely won’t return for lesson two if he doesn’t split them up and start teaching them individually, with rule number one being, “Don’t teach each other how to dance!”
Contrast this scene with a professional dance couple.
The dance begins with a strong frame. The Leader’s body adjusts to offer his hand based on her particular body size and strength. He knows just where to cue her with the slightest pressure, applied at key points, timed so her body cannot help but glide where he leads. He watches her and feels her responses. His keen eye surveys the surroundings to guide her safely as they progress the dance around the room. He adjusts his dance to his perception of how well she is able to follow his lead on this particular dance, on this particular night, in this particular setting. His goal is her success, for the dance is only as good as the two achieve together. As a follower, she is no mambie. Her body is strong and poised. She holds her frame firmly and gives just enough resistance into his frame that she can adequately feel his lead without losing her balance. If she does not hold her frame securely, his leading touch may only move her arms–and her arms, flopping wildly, will then throw off her balance. Constantly aware of her own form, her core, every muscle active, each joint positioned appropriately to perform each step, she instantly reads his physical cues and adjusts her body to the next step. Like a musician who can name the song from the first note, her body knows the dance movements so well her muscles have their own memory. Together they glide across the floor, making the dance appear easy to the casual observer.
If you’ve ever tried it, you know it is anything but easy.
Neither are the roles of leader and follower in life. The effective leader is not bossy, lazy or all-knowing. Rather, he is perceptive, receptive, proactive and adaptive. He knows what he is doing and perceives his follower’s ability. Knowing future plans, he carefully observes his follower and the environment and makes adjustments on the spot to accommodate as needed.
Likewise, the follower is not weak, spineless or stupid. No, she is strong, centered and experienced. Aware of her strengths and well-practiced skills, she brings to her leader a force to be reckoned with. Bearing the same goal as her leader, she sees her part in attaining the goal equally important. She does not let him push her around, but instead offers equal counter-pressure to his lead, balancing his direction with her viewpoint. She willingly goes where he leads with graceful determination, with shared joy in the journey. She senses that he is fully invested in her success. They differ in perspective, attributes, abilities and roles, but function in a complementary manner. Together they achieve what neither could do alone.
These are characteristics of good leaders and faithful followers.
This is true in marriage, and it is true in the workforce. It is true in relationships of all sorts. It takes a lot of strength, preparation, respectful interaction and practice to pull off this kind of fancy footwork. Leading to express your bossy self, to have the higher place in the pecking order or to be the one who knows it all doesn’t lend itself to respectful interaction. Following to find the easy way out, to avoid conflict or risk doesn’t lend itself to strong counterforce bringing your best self to the mix. Fretting over who is in charge, who is better, who is to blame, who is the weakest link. . . these things are not going to help us reach our mutual destination or enjoy the journey. Recognizing our own and others’ strengths and abilities, bringing our best to bear, applying ourselves and keeping alert to cues from the environment and our mates to make necessary adjustments as we go. . . will.
Whether you’re a leader or a follower or, like most of us, some of each–depending on the relationship–regard yourself positively. Regard each member of your team positively. Recognize mutual goals and enjoy the journey together. Bring it all you’ve got, and let the dance begin!
©Joan T Warren