Why Should I Follow You?

“The led must not be compelled; they must be able to choose their own leader.” – Albert Einstein

What if you aren’t really leading anyone?

Before you get too defensive, I also asked myself this question. When I did, it occurred to me that I might be a just little bit delusional. I thought of leadership as a set of traits that I possessed or a role I inherited due to my position in the organization. In other words, leadership was something I was doing or producing.

It was an identity.

Then it occurred to me…

Leadership isn’t something I possess. “Leader” is not a title or identity I can bestow on myself. If I am leading, it isn’t because I have certain traits or abilities even though they might help me become a leader.

I am only leading when there are people who have made a conscious decision to trust me with an important part of their lives.

And that’s not an exaggeration because for most of us, really trusting and following someone in the context of our work or other significant areas of our lives is a pretty big deal.

Leadership doesn’t belong to me.

Maybe you think I’m stating the obvious but bear with me. What are the implications of this paradigm shift? When you realize that leadership is a gift given by others, not something you can possess or demand, it changes your perspective on what leadership is and who qualifies as a leader.

I can’t lead you without your permission.

Oh sure I may be able to coerce you to follow my direction and fulfill the tasks I have assigned but you are not accepting my leadership. You are simply acting to avoid the consequences of not doing the work or seeking the benefits for completing the work.

I will have access to your hands, maybe even your head, but not your heart. And that’s where all the best stuff happens. The result is compliance without passion or engagement.

Leadership is a choice.

The first question I must ask myself is, “do I truly want to lead?”. Am I ready for the responsibility that goes with gaining the trust and support of others? Do I truly appreciate and am I ready to deal with the consequences of their decision? Am I willing to do what it takes to be worthy of this gift?

The word leadership may have lost its meaning in our vocabulary due to a serious case of overuse but it remains a very real and vital responsibility. If you really want to lead, then you must accept all that goes with it. Otherwise call yourself something else like “The Boss”, “Big Wig” “Grand Poobah” or “The Big Cheese” and move on.

Leadership is a gift.

  • People give leadership to someone they trust.
  • People give leadership to someone they respect.
  • People give leadership to someone who is competent.
  • People give leadership to someone who sets the example.
  • People give leadership to someone who provides a purpose.
  • People give leadership to someone who shows appreciation.
  • People give leadership to someone who makes them feel valued.
  • People give leadership to someone who offers an inspiring vision.

All stuff we know, right? But that someone has to be you!

Leadership isn’t one and done.

People don’t accept your leadership as a lifelong commitment. They choose every day. They choose with each test or challenge and with every risk you ask them to take. They choose with each promise you make and with every action they observe. They choose based on how you respond when you fail or when they do the same. You are always earning the right to lead.

You’re only a leader if they let you in.

Give this a try. Observe your actions from their point of view and consider the question they are asking. “Why should I follow you?”

6 comments

  1. Scott, Another great, thought-provoking post from you! This is a beautiful perspective when we flip our thinking to the other side—it changes the whole dynamic. Indeed, we can only lead if others allow us to do the job—if they trust and respect us. It comes down to Integrity. Thank you for poking and digging deep on this question.

    You are a true, authentic leader. And your team is truly blessed to have you as their leader.

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Dee. I feel like I am still learning how to lead every day. I think for any of us who take it seriously, it is a journey, not a destination. I do appreciate your encouraging comments and thanks again for stopping by.

      Reply

  2. Sorry, but I find a lot to disagree with in your comments. Leadership is NOT EVER the property of a person; it is a property of a group. The best a leader can do is “lead” and engage in processes associated with “leading”, a few of which may involve leadership.But the rest of the group is equally involved in the possibility for leadership to be present and occur.

    Leadership is always focused on removing an obstacle or a barrier — obstacles are things — you need money, time, certain equipment or a particular type of consulting. “Barriers” are people — those who do not do the work or inhibit the work or sabotaging the outcomes sought through ignorance or malice.

    Leadership is a process for sure but setting it up and operating in it takes work… a lot of HARD work. And not all of that is on the shoulders of “the leader” of the group; the group shares in that as well.

    Most of us like the mythology of the “heroic leader” out there doing great things. But it is just that — a mythology. A lot of what we attribute to “great leaders” is actually work done by those engaged in the debates/discussions of what needs to be done, when, why, how and with whom. That is the leadership process.

    I could go on but read the works of early master of leadership — Barnard, Homans, etc. to really learn what leadership is and the real role of leaders. Read “Toward a Behavioral Description of High Performing Systems” or “Notes on Technology” ( google it!) (Both by Peter Vail) Read Tracy Kidder — “The Soul of a New Machine” to see how “leadership” moves among people working on a project — processes for removing obstacles and barriers!

    Reply

    1. Hi Jim, thanks for the thoughtful and challenging response. I hear you. While I am not fully tracking with how some of these points relate to the intent of the post I agree with much of what you shared. It seems we both agree that leadership is never the property of a person, (that was the entire point of the post). The only thing that seems to be missing from your description is human beings and the social, psychological, developmental and emotional connections involved in leadership. For me, it is more than a system for removing barriers. Best to you.

      Reply

  3. Scott, the movie “Glory” (starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick) is an excellent guide to leadership. It also happens to support your post. Funny how that works.

    Reply

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