Active Following

[article]
Leading by Choosing the Supporting Role
Summary:
Great leaders don't always lead the charge, stand in front, or offer direction. They know when to step aside to let others step forward. Yet, this type of leadership is often mistaken for passivity or overlooked entirely. Esther Derby shows how "in front" leadership actually can cause gridlock and loss of productivity and destroy the good spirits of a team. You can avoid these pitfalls by noticing when the most effective leadership means choosing to follow.

I've seen a renewed cry for leaders in organizations lately. Too often in these discussions, the definition of "leadership" boils down to a role where one individual creates a vision for others to follow. That's not enough. We need more leadership, not just more anointed or appointed leaders. "Leadership" is most potent when it's a verb, not a noun. Leadership is taking actions that will help a group create a product, achieve their charter, grow in capability, solve problems, or improve results.

Looked at this way, we can create organizations that are full of leadership, not just individuals in leadership roles. And, sometimes, the most potent leadership action is the quiet act of choosing to follow. I call that being an active follower. Here are three ways to be an active follower on your group or team.

Step Back and Let Someone Else Step Forward
When one person on the team is the most skilled, it's easy for the rest of the group to over rely on that person. Overreliance on one person poses a risk. On the operational level, there's the truck factor: If the most-skilled or sole skilled individual leaves the job for whatever reason (and we hope it's not because he is hit by the proverbial truck), the team won't be able to function. No one will be ready to step in. In cases of extreme overreliance, the rest of the group won't be aware of all the work that person was doing. It might take weeks before someone else can identify and pick up the pieces. There's also a long-term risk to team health. When person takes the lead, others don't have the opportunity to learn and develop their own capabilities. If there's no place to grow, people will check out and leaveor, worse, check out and stay.

Break Gridlock by Deferring to Someone Else's Idea
When too many people want to be "the leader," the result often isn't action but a complete lack of forward movement. If no one is willing to step back and declare "I don't have to have my way; let's try your way this time," the result is gridlock. An active follower seeing gridlock will choose to follow someone else's lead for the good of the team.

Take a Supporting Role
There's a reason that the Oscars have an award for best supporting actor. Without the supporting actor, the work of the lead falls flat. Many jobs demand the work of two people, but it's not equal in every case. An active follower is willing to take that supporting role and let someone else take the lead. You may not get the credit this time, but chances are that if you're willing to support someone else today, she'll be willing to take the supporting role another day. Let a less-senior member of the team make an important presentation. Play a supporting role by offering feedback on a draft, listening to a practice run, and sharing tips and experience that will help the other person succeed.

When only one person leads, the rest of the team members are turned into passive followers. Unlike active followers, who make a choice to allow someone else to lead in a particular instance, passive followers always hang back. Passive followers fall into the habit of depending on others, whether it's keeping track of time, coming up with ideas, or galvanizing the group into action. Passive followers wait for someone else to step up, not out of an intention to achieve results, but out of habit or a sense of disempowerment.

Over time, the de facto leader may resent being the only one who attends to time or urges action. When only one person comes up with ideas, the team is missing out on a rich mix of ideas to choose from and may be missing good options. Other team members don't exercise their own creativity, and the team as a whole misses out on their talents. Some people prefer to let others take the lead and the credit (and also the blame). But, most people want at least a slice of the glory. When they're always in the background, they don't get that and eventually disengage. They may even undercut the star who won't move off center stage so they can get their own moments of fame.

Productive teams count on leadership throughout the team and know that each can lead at different times. Likewise, they expect that, at some point, each will follow another's lead all in the interests of the team and team results.

When you consider your team or group, which sort of followership do you observe? How is that serving your team? What are other ways to be an active follower? Post your comments below.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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