Can being better followers make us better leaders?
Focusing on following may seem an odd way to tackle the challenges of leading, but there’s a power in this approach we can easily overlook.
There’s a danger in ignoring it, too. That was a lesson I learned the hard way deep in the dry, burning pine forests of western Wyoming one sweltering summer.
Here’s what happened, and how we can powerfully influence the behavior of those we are trying to lead, simply by paying attention to how we are following.
Yellowstone in Danger
The radio crackled to life and a message came through the static: “Move your men up the hill and start cutting another fire line.”
This order did not make me happy.
My team and I were high in the hills of Yellowstone National Park in 1988. The wild fires raging across the west that year were so bad that some active duty army units like mine were deployed to combat them. After some hasty training, we flew to a base camp in Wyoming and fought for a month to protect and preserve this famous national park.
One common fire-fighting task we performed was cutting line. Using hand tools, we would scrape and dig a dirt boundary along the ground we hoped the fire could not leap across.
On line-cutting days, the commander would assign us a sector to clear, and we would tackle the job as a team. It was callus-forming, salty-sweat-in-your-eye work, but we believed it was important and were happy to put our backs into it.
One sweltering afternoon, we had just finished our assigned section and paused for a well-deserved break when the radio message came through. We were to climb farther up the hillside and help another unit complete their assigned fire line.
To me, this was patently unfair. We had done our part. And now it seemed that our reward for working quickly and effectively was not only to be given more work, but to help those who we assumed hadn’t worked as hard as we had.
If you are a leader in just about any capacity, you know this sort of thing happens all the time. The decision-makers above us task us to do something, reassign priorities, reallocate resources. We don’t always agree with their choices. But regardless of how we feel, we’re supposed to comply.
When that happens, there are two ways to carry out those instructions: there’s what good leaders do, and then, as on that hillside in Wyoming, there’s what I did.
Pitching a Fit
Looking back, it wasn’t my proudest moment. I’m pretty sure I tossed the radio handset down, probably made a face or two, and muttered some things to myself that I didn’t try too hard to keep others from hearing.
With that same attitude, I gave the men a heads-up that there was more work to be done, clearly conveying my disagreement and dissatisfaction in the process.
In that moment, if I was thinking at all, it may have been about taking a “we’re all in this together” attitude and trying to distance myself from this perceived inequity. “I’m with you; I’m not part of the problem.”
Perhaps this did endear me with the men to some degree. But I shouldn’t have been surprised when they were slow to get moving, or when they made similar faces, or did a little grumbling of their own. Our movement and actions were sluggish and reluctant for the rest of the day.
We ultimately got the job done, but it took more effort than it should have.
Setting the Template
The thing that’s easy to forget in moments like these is that even as we are attempting to lead our teammates, we are also followers of other leaders above us.
Because our positions make us more visible, the actions we take are seen, noted, and often magnified in the eyes of our teammates. We are setting the example. If others respect us, they will tend to follow that example. Obviously, we want that to be a good thing.
Following as a Leader
What are some of the ways we should follow, in order to get the best out of our own teammates?
Communicate clearly and consistently.
Reinforce team culture.
Find ways to help.
Avoid challenging them publicly.
Pay attention to small, important details.
Provide helpful feedback.
Following the Follower – The Takeaway
Most of us are both leaders and followers. How we act in following our leaders can have a huge impact on how others follow us.
When we think the boss has made a mistake or is wrong about something, there are effective ways to deal with that. Pitching a fit and throwing the radio handset in front of the team are not among them. Worse, following poorly only sets an example we really don’t want to be setting.
If we are truly leading, at times we will have to make decisions that aren’t popular. How our team responds to those decisions will have a lot to do with how we have personally demonstrated they should respond.
On that sweltering hillside in Wyoming, it turned out that there were perfectly logical reasons for having my team move up the hill.
It all made sense once my commander patiently helped me see the bigger picture.
Another positive example worth following. I had much to learn…