Learn to Follow First
There’s no question that groups are more coherent, more collaborative, and ultimately more productive when members of the group feel a genuine sense of belonging, understand that their contributions matter, and are prepared to make them.
There should also be no question that developing that sense of belonging is a shared responsibility between leaders and those who follow them. Leaders must establish the climate, create the environment, and in word and deed reinforce that everyone belongs. But followers must “be there” for their efforts to bear fruit. Followers must want to belong and be willing to learn how to do so. They owe their leaders—and themselves—that much.
Because most who become leaders begin at some entry level.
The best leaders learn to follow first.
Never Forget That Character Matters
Not all of us have a moral compass on our desks, but we need to have one in our hearts. Without it, we won’t live a life in which character matters.
In this era of ubiquitous information, complexity, and intense scrutiny, it is becoming routine to respond to reports of character flaws in business, athletics, and politics with an indifferent shrug and a “Yes, but . . . .” It’s becoming easier to rationalize a lack of character by emphasizing accomplishments, as though this were a binary choice. It’s becoming commonplace that reports of character flaws are greeted with skepticism.
In this environment, character matters even more. Building teams requires bringing together individuals with the right credentials, commitment, and character. A lack of any one of these will eventually mean trouble. Our teams—both leaders and followers—will and should be judged not only by what they accomplish but also by how.
Neither leading nor following will be effective if personal interactions and beliefs are considered mere differences in perception. Rather, both leading and following require conviction and character.
Be Passionately Curious
Although we have access to almost anything we want to know in today’s digital world, we often confine ourselves to that which reinforces what we want to believe. Perhaps it’s all just too overwhelming; perhaps we fall victim to the comfort of confirmation bias; perhaps we convince ourselves we’re just too busy.
Yet we can all contribute to the common good and to our common goals when we are better informed, when we can see connections, when we are a little more curious.
Understand the Limits of Loyalty
Loyalty must be earned. Once earned, it must be nurtured and then earned again. For it to work, it must be equally important to those in leadership positions and to those who follow them.
Loyalty is an important but sometimes elusive intersection of timing, intentions, motivations, and communications. It almost always takes courage. It’s a two-way street, and those traveling on each side must work diligently to avoid a collision.
Sweat the Small Stuff
It’s always important to identify the fundamentals—the small stuff—on which an organization is built. Most failures can be traced back to an erosion of the fundamentals. It’s understandable that people in an organization often conclude that they are under-resourced and too busy. That’s human nature. But when we use that to ignore the fundamentals, to cut corners, we end up paying a price.
Sweat the small stuff, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting the big stuff right.
Exercise Sensible Skepticism
Sensible skepticism means thinking hard about the information we receive, not just blithely accepting it. It means overcoming decision paralysis by reaching a point when you allow yourself to be satisfied with the information you have. It means managing relationships between leaders and followers in an open and transparent way.
The nexus of artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and big-data management to manipulate information, corrupt databases, and produce things like deepfake images means that sensible skepticism may become more important than any of the hard skills we associate with decision making today. Increasingly, sensible skepticism will be a hedge against the likelihood that data may be manipulated in ways that we cannot even conceive of today.
Be Responsibly Rebellious
Responsible rebelliousness probably won’t appear on any organizational statement of corporate values, but there should be a place for it in an organization’s culture.
And there are indicators of whether it’s there or not. How do leaders respond when one of their employees says, “I don’t think I’m going to do it that way”? How do followers respond when the boss tells them, “I only want you to do it this way”?
The answers to those two questions are a starting point in understanding whether there’s any room for responsible rebellion in an organization.
If it’s true that most innovation starts with a bit of rebellion, then we should allow space for it, and we should think about how we can help our employees understand the difference between responsible and irresponsible rebelliousness.
On the other hand, as Ori Brafman often points out, “no one was ever fired for failing to innovate.”
If the case for responsible rebelliousness is a strong one, here’s the compact that needs to be made between leaders and followers: leaders create safe space; those who follow take advantage of it.