Leadership is Hard; Good Followers Can Help
Leadership is hard!
I understand the risk of being accused of proclaiming the obvious here, but I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on this statement.
We demand a lot from leaders. Our expectations of them tend to be very high. We are quick to criticize them when their leadership fails to meet our ideals. We write countless books and articles about what good (and bad) leadership looks like. There is an endless supply of leadership classes, seminars, and coaching programs.
This is completely understandable (and even critical!) because leaders hold a lot of authority and power. Anyone with authority and power should be held accountable for the way they steward those things. And, to be sure, some leaders don’t steward authority and power – they abuse them.
Here’s the problem though…
Because we tend to focus so much on leaders, we can easily develop a sort of myopia that causes us to forget how challenging leadership is. And think about it…the more difficult something is, the more likely it is that a person attempting it will do it imperfectly. This means there is a good risk that we will be overly critical of our leaders – and sometimes even resentful of them. That makes leaders and followers pretty miserable.
Developing empathy for leaders can help followers avoid being overcritical or resentful of leaders.
Developing empathy for leaders can help followers avoid being overcritical or resentful of leaders. With that in mind, here are a few things that can help followers remember that leadership is difficult…
Followers have widely differing expectations of leaders – My own research has revealed that followers tend to have radically different preferences for leadership styles. One person prefers an aggressive, decisive leader, while another prefers a more approachable, consensus building leader. One person prefers a highly transparent and vulnerable leader while another prefers a leader who maintains an aloof leadership mystique. The point is that no leader will please everyone within this range of follower preferences, so leaders are in a sort of no-win situation.
Leaders are evolving – Leaders are people. People learn. People grow. People change. Therefore, most leaders will become better leaders over time. The point here for followers is that their current leaders are not the leaders they will be in 10 years. This means that if we compare current leaders to the versions of themselves in 10 years, it is likely that we will be more pleased with the future versions and find deficiencies in the current versions. Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, the fact is that the more desirable future leaders cannot become those future leaders without first being the less desirable current leaders. It’s important to reflect on that.
Leadership looks easy until you try it – As I’ve moved higher up the organizational leadership pyramid, I have noticed that often the best followers are people with some leadership experience. This is because many of these followers have been exposed to some of the challenges leaders face. They have tasted the burden and loneliness of leadership. They have faced the dilemma of having to choose between several lousy options when no good options were available. These challenges intensify the closer one gets to a first chair leadership role. I remember when I took my first “top of the organizational pyramid” leadership position. Before that role, it was easy for me to be a Monday morning quarterback judging the leader in the first chair. When I finally sat in that chair, I experienced a rude awakening! I even went back to some of the leaders I had judged and acknowledged my new respect for them.
Good followers can play a vital role in developing good leaders.
It’s also important to remember that good followers can play a vital role in developing good leaders. Here are a few fundamental ways followers can help leaders...
Give leaders grace – I’m certainly not suggesting that we give leaders a pass on truly poor leadership. But we can do a lot for them in just acknowledging the burden they carry, the challenges they face, and the growth they are experiencing. On their leadership journey, leaders will not be perfect, and they will make mistakes. So, they will need our forgiveness, our patience, and our encouragement. Blowing wind into their sails is far more gracious than sucking the life out of them.
Be honest, but do it respectfully – Because leaders are not perfect, followers will need to offer correctives on occasion. This may take the form of challenging an idea the leader has or pointing out a blind spot the leader should address. When done well, these correctives will help leaders lead and grow. But followers should offer them with respect and sensitivity. Though we can forget this, leaders have feelings and can become discouraged. On the other hand, when followers demonstrate respect and faithfulness, they earn the trust of their leaders who will then be far more open to receiving the correctives that will develop them as leaders.
Learn what a good follower is – We hear lots of talk about leadership, but very little about followership. Yet, followership is the other side of the leadership coin. We expect leaders to deliberately prepare themselves to lead well, so why shouldn’t we also expect followers to prepare themselves to follow well? Followers can start this process by simply asking their leaders to describe their idea of a good follower. Followers can then periodically check in with leaders about how they are doing as followers. Followers can also deliberately look for opportunities to learn more about how to follow well.
Nothing I’m saying here is an excuse for complacent, unethical, or abusive leadership. Leaders must understand how many people they impact and should strive to be the best leaders they can be. But, sometimes it’s important to take a moment to remember just how critical followers are in the leadership equation.
One last thought…
This is a difficult message for leaders to convey to the people they lead. Think about how awkward it would be for a leader to say, “hey everyone – leadership is hard, so you all need to learn how to become better followers.” This is the kind of thing a third party should do. Corporate boards can bless leaders by making this point themselves or bringing in someone from outside the organization to help.
Leadership is hard, but good followers can make it more joyous – and this benefits everyone.
Founder and President, Remedium Solutions LLC