I’ll often get asked what it takes to be a great leader. Those asking the question are typically looking for one or two standout, key principles or characteristics. They want it simple and succinct.
I’ll be honest here, my answer to that question often changes. Leadership is a matter of context, so I’ll often tell them it depends. When pressed further, I’ll usually respond with something that’s a combination of taking responsibility, achieving results, and building relationships.
But last week, I blurted out an answer that I hadn’t shared before. It kind of caught me off guard. A student posed the question and I looked him straight in the eye and said…
If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to be a great follower.
After the conversation, I spent some time reflecting on what I just said.
Is that true?
Is following the prerequisite to leading?
How does my experience as a follower prepare me to be a leader?
The key word here is “great.” Great followers are better prepared and positioned to become great leaders. Even if you never get to bear the title of leader, never underestimate the influence you have as a follower. Every follower brings something to the team.
If you aren’t in a leadership position (yet!), I want to encourage you to be the best follower you can be. Actually, I want you to be a great follower. Be the kind of follower you would want on your team if you were the leader.
I believe we can be great followers, those who follow like a leader, in the following ways:
1. Great followers have great character.
They have integrity. They keep their promises. They lead themselves well.
2. Great followers make those around them better.
They make their teammates better. They make their leader better. They add value to the people and projects that come their way.
3. Great followers see the big picture.
They have bought into the mission, vision, and values of the team. They work hard to create a culture that keeps the team moving forward.
4. Great followers get it done.
They start and finish. They don’t need someone to hold their hand or constantly check up on them. They accomplish their work.
5. Great followers see opportunity.
They don’t need to be asked or invited. They see a need and work to fix it. They find ways to make processes and systems better.
6. Great followers challenge their leader.
They offer constructive criticism. They push their leader to be excellent. They sometimes disagree and will do so respectfully.
7. Great followers can be trusted.
They are consistent. They are responsible. They own their mistakes and learn from them. They are loyal to their leader.
Your role as a follower is incredibly significant. I hope you realize that a leader can’t be effective if his or her followers aren’t effective. You play a key role in the success or failure of your team’s mission and goals. Be the kind of follower you would want if you were the leader.