Tough Act to Follow

inflight

One way to identify an effective leader in an organizational setting is by their follower-ship. Who is following them and what’s it like for followers to follow that leader? Even brilliant, accomplished and well-intentioned leaders get in their own way and become hard to follow. It can be related to who they become under the influence of chronic power stress. And it can be tempting to blame the difficulty on the followers, the terrain you’re crossing or some other external circumstances. But really, the solution starts with you.
inflight
Tough Act to Follow?

One way to identify an effective leader in an organizational setting is by their follower-ship. Who is following them and what’s it like for followers to follow that leader? Even a leader leading leaders must deal with this question. In a leadership culture, follower-ship is a natural element of leadership. What’s the alternative to having followers? The leader flies or marches off in a direction alone.

Here might be a significant distinction between a leader, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a hero on the hero’s journey. On the hero’s journey, the individual actually must break away and march off into the unknown on her own. It’s to get in touch with what she’s made of and engage the demons that obstruct or obscure her unique and necessary path. There are parts of the hero’s journey that are inward and not about other people’s needs or goals. A hero in the making might be a leader, but “leader” is not a synonym for “hero.” However, the hero who returns to her community with a vision and passion for creating something important from a new core of strength and wisdom has the potential of being an even greater leader.

Back to the leader being a “tough act to follow.” What makes a leader hard to follow? Let’s take apart this innocent little phrase for some clues.

Tough. In an attempt to lead with answers, rigor, discipline, accountability and perseverance, a leader can become just plain tough. There’s a persistent imbalance in overly “yang” and not enough “yin.” Following this person can feel like boot-camp, which has its merits when done skillfully and in measure. Unskillfully or in overuse, however, it can come across as being relentlessly driven, autocratic, arrogant, critical, bullying, rigid or out of touch. Another version of “tough” is heavily armored or defensive. This can show up indirectly as being evasive, obscure, insincere, unresponsive or hiding. That can be tough to follow, especially over time and under pressure.

Act. Concerned about performance and being perceived as “on top of it,” a leader can become an act. Sure, there’s truth in “fake it ‘til you make it.” But there’s also something extremely compelling about a leader who has the strength to be vulnerable, transparent and present in his humanity. “Game face” can become a pattern of inauthentic interaction and presentation, not presence. People sense inauthenticity quickly and often unconsciously. They become guarded and defensive, wary of what doesn’t feel true or trustworthy. That act can be tough to follow, especially when you want people to give their best under trying circumstances.

Follow. When you think of being an effective leader, is the experience of your followers top of mind? If you had to pick, would you rather be seen as 1) competent, 2) like-able, or 3) significant? Any answer is valid. But whatever your answer is, it may suggest blind spots in how you communicate, delegate, strategize, and deal with difference. This impacts the experience of someone trying to follow your lead. For example,…
  • How eager are you to be in control?
  • How receptive are you to being controlled by others?
  • How open and self-revelatory are you willing to be?
  • How much openness do you invite from others?
  • When and how important is it that you be included?
  • When are you willing to include others?
It boils down to questions of self-esteem – yours and theirs. Inattention to how it is to follow you can make you hard to follow. (Resource - The Human Element: Productivity, Self-Esteem, and the Bottom Line, by Will Schutz, PhD)

Even brilliant, accomplished and well-intentioned leaders get in their own way and become hard to follow. It can be related to who they become under the influence of chronic power stress. And it can be tempting to blame the difficulty on the followers, the terrain you’re crossing or some other external circumstances. But really, the solution starts with you.

Leaders go first. It is possible to lead and even “boss” people such that they leave the experience feeling better, not worse, about who they are and what they contribute and achieve with you and for you. It is possible to inhabit being a leader – even being the “boss” – and feel attuned with and happy about yourself, not exhausted and out of sorts.

I’ve heard – and perhaps you have, too – about real-life epic leaders. People say they would drop everything and follow those leaders anywhere. One such leader, as portrayed by his followers, was the living example of this message: “Take care of your job, take care of yourself, and take care of each other.” That guy was definitely a tough act to follow in another way of understanding that little phrase. He was one of those rare leaders who people talk about smiling or deeply moved. Deeply moved about what they accomplished, their triumph over adversity, and, significantly, what it felt like to get there together.

Remember playing “follow the leader” as a child? When was it fun to lead? When was it fun to follow? The hero-you remembers. A tip for the leader you want to be now: ask your inner hero.

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