A day doesn’t go by that I don’t see some article about becoming a better leader, the top five principles of leadership, the one thing every leader should know, and…well…you get the idea. But I can’t remember the last time I read an article about becoming a better follower. Why is this? Why does no one aspire to be a better follower? It all comes down to one harmful perception: that the tactical is esteemed less than the strategic.
I used to work for a large semiconductor company where everyone constantly admonished each other to be “more strategic.” If someone said that you were thinking “tactically,” they were basically casting doubt on your contributions. This organization failed to recognize that strategy and tactics are the two ends of the same stick, and that without one you don’t have the other. Strategy without tactics is no more than a pipedream, while tactics without strategy is a thousand cats racing about aimlessly. You need to esteem both equally to be successful.
Transactional vs. Transformational Leadership
This bias persists even in leadership theory itself. Some authors rate transactional leadership as passive and ineffective, while transformational leadership is held up as active and effective. Though in some ways this is clearly the case, it misses the point of situational leadership. Sometimes the right kind of leader is one that can get things done—now—on schedule—to specs—and within budget. This requires operational and transaction leadership skills.
Manager vs. Individual Contributor
In many organizations, career ladders almost inevitably lead to one taking on a managerial role. In my mind, this is the quintessential example of the Peter Principle: that every employee tends to rise to his or her greatest level of incompetence. For example, if you’re a great engineer, the company makes you a manager of engineers. The problem is that this practice fails to respect the skillset and competencies associated with great managers. Assuming that a great engineer would make a great manager makes about as much sense as saying that he’d make a great lawyer, doctor, architect, or pilot. And yet, when people choose to leave management and take an individual contributor role, they’re somehow looked upon as moving backwards in their career.
So why does any of this matter? Simple: leaders are only as effective and their ability to influence their followers—and the greater the number of committed followers, the greater the influence. But when the role of follower is devalued and relegated to the status of a byword, a leader’s ability to influence and lead is severely curtailed. In other words, great leaders need great followers. Furthermore, in terms of sheer numbers, we need great followers far more that we need great leaders. Take one of my clients, for example. They continually fund and hire senior-level leadership positions, but then neglect the operational side of the house. As a result, about twelve to fifteen leaders meet and establish a vision, which then falls on the shoulders of one full-time technical resource, an intern, and a temporary contractor to make happen. Needless to say, this is not terribly effective.
So I guess in the end, this is another leadership article. Want to be a better leader? Invest in your followers.