A Leading Follower

So much has been said about leadership. If you step into a bookstore, head over to a business/management section, what would you see? I bet you wouldn’t have any trouble finding books about how to be an effective leader. Funnily enough, I’ve yet to see a book about how to be an effective follower. What does that tell us? Leadership means business! Those publishers aren’t stupid. They don’t waste time and energy on something if they see no demands or popularity for it. Clearly, there’s a huge market for people wanting to cultivate leadership and inject it into their professional life. No one can argue that leadership is one of the highly sought-after skills we admire and look to improve on. Rightly so, but just because you want it, doesn’t mean you can have it if you don’t have what it takes to get there.

Are you a leader material? What if you are not, what does that leave you? Will it say something less about you? Don’t despair!

Well, who wouldn’t want to see their name sitting on the top of an organisational chart? Who wouldn’t want to be in a position of trust, power and authority and have a plenty of staff under him/her? The truth is there’s only limited availability for the leadership or C level executives. If someone must lead, then someone else must follow, right? The question of whether leaders are born or made, it’s highly debatable and will remain so as long as people have different opinions. One thing is for sure though, you need to have a thing about leadership. It’s earned, not given to you automatically.

What if one day you wake up and realize you’ve been barking up the wrong tree? All things considered, you come to this conclusion that you’re better at being a follower than a leader. Is there anything wrong with it? Here’s my awakening moment to share with you.

Last Friday, during a team breakfast just like all other occasions, my CEO presented us with a business update. I knew he wasn’t big on surprises, so I never expected one from him. But right before he finished it, I noticed something intriguing around him. He was holding a few envelops on one hand. The first one got my name on it. I had a few giggles inside. I couldn’t wait to find out if he’d got something for me. Yes, he did. He called my name and gave me a small reward in front of all staff. I was praised for “stepping up to help other team when required.” It was nice to be recognised by him – someone who has the final say in my career progression and pay increases. I was humble and grateful for it. This recognition has re-validated one of my core strengths – the ability to follow directions and execute orders – an essential attribute for a good team player, an effective follower. Right there and then, for the first time, I was totally fine with being a supportive role and proud of it.

Being a people pleaser and a care taker type of person myself, in some way I’m probably destined for becoming a follower, rather than a leader. If leadership isn’t my department, I’m willing to let go of it and pursue something that’s more in line with what’s in my “nature” – followership. In the past, I would’ve seen followership as a flaw in personality traits but now I see it as a different type of character strength. I’d love to be that guy running the show but at the same time, I don’t think I’m thick-skinned enough to be a star in the limelight for too long and too often.

Interestingly, just the other day, I heard someone say on a podcast that a follower is more important than a leader. It gave a lot of food for thought. My bias and favoritism towards leadership was swayed by it much more than I’d like to admit. But deep down I still held that thought – leaders are for the strong people, followers are for the weak people. A very black-and-white thinking. Then today I went to ask someone in a leadership position about which one is more important, I got quite a good insight from him which I’ll summary it below with a touch of my own take on it.

Here’s the thing. Some are more suited for being followers, some are more suited for being leaders. There’s nothing wrong with being a follower if you don’t end up becoming a leader or simply don’t have an appetite for leadership from the start. No matter which role you play, the most important thing is: You play it well and you’re good at what you’re doing…

I’ll call myself a leading follower… You?

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