The best leaders know more than how to lead. More importantly that that, though, they know how to follow. Although it might seem the opposite, leading and following are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, when you lead by following, you’ll be a stronger and more effective leader. After all, how can you empathize with your team if you are not a good follower?
To lead from the back of the pack, here are three rules to get you started:
Lead by Following Rule #1: Do Unto Others
The Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—isn’t just an important lesson for life; it’s a critical lesson for leadership as well. And it’s really the foundation for how to lead by following.
One of the best ways to lead is by putting yourself in the shoes of your followers. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How do you want to be treated?
- What’s important to you?
- What will make you feel empowered and engaged?
- What motivates you?
- What do you need to succeed?
In addition to considering your audience of followers, remember to apply your own experiences as a follower. What made a difference to you then? As you lead by following, when you turn the table—and imagine yourself on the other side—your leadership will be more relevant, more personal, and more powerful.
Lead by Following Rule #2: Be the “We”
The key to leadership success is not about the “I,” it’s about the “we,” according to the book The New Psychology of Leadership, as reported in Harvard Business Review. As a former football player and current coach, I couldn’t agree with this more. After all, “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” Leaders have to look at the whole rather than focusing on making themselves look good. If you believe a leader is independent of the team, you’ll never, ever be a great one.
When you lead by following, you recognize that everyone is united in the effort to meet goals—both individual and group. In other words: we’re all in this together. There’s a reason the idea that “teamwork makes the dream work” resonates: because it’s true. As an effective leader, you need to be collaborative, approachable, transparent, and selfless. Stay focused on the “we” and the “us.” That’s how you lead by following.
Lead by Following Rule #3: Build Your Skills
The last rule for how to lead by following is to always keep learning. The most effective coaches have their own coaches who help them continue to grow and learn. Challenge yourself every day, and remember what it’s like to be on the other side. When you forget what it feels like to be a follower, you lose your effectiveness as a leader.
The valuable skills you developed—and continue to develop—as a follower are essential to being a good leader, and to your ability to lead by following. Think about diplomacy and the ability to get along with others who have different ideas. Or independent critical thinking—not falling victim to “groupthink.” And the art of persuasion, specifically how to make sure your voice is not only heard but listened to.
Then last, but certainly not least, is the importance of personal accountability. As a a follower, your group can count on you to deliver on your commitments and take responsibility for your actions. As a leader, your followers should be able to do the same.