Real leaders make space for others to shine

I’ve seen a renewed cry for leaders in organizations lately. Too often in these discussions, the attempt to define the characteristics of a leader boils down to a role in which 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. Effective leadership involves 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 of all the characteristics of a leader 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, even for teams that have mastered the Six Ways to Better Team Communication. 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 leave—or, worse, check out and stay.

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. The ability to create an environment with active followers rather than passive followers is one of the key characteristics of a leader.

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.

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.

Promoting engagement from all team members and knowing when to take a step back are two vital characteristics of a leader. Encourage team members, especially more active ones, to actively practice deferring to the ideas of other team members. If you find that other team members aren’t getting their share of opportunities to suggest ideas and improvements, try this exercise to improve self-facilitation skills for teams.

Take a Supporting Role

It may sound counterintuitive when talking about the characteristics of a leader, but 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.

Back up a teammate when he chooses a difficult-to-implement story–or one that’s at the edge of his technical skills. Pair program with him, but let him drive. Offer informal peer review, offer feedback, or coach.

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.


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. Making sure team members are aware of the characteristics of a leader as outlined above will help make the team more effective.

More often than not, long-lasting organizational change requires looking beyond individuals or even teams and assessing how systems across the entire organization incentivize behavior. Effective leadership starts in the team with these strategies. But if the team is still running into roadblocks after this, you’ll need to check whether you have higher-level organizational-level barriers.

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.

9 Replies to “Real leaders make space for others to shine”

  1. On a related note, one pattern that fascinates me is something that I’d call Kidnapping the Whiteboard. This happens in meetings and workskops when someone, in their eagerness to lead, suddenly takes over the session in a less than helpful way. They grab a marker, turn their back to the group and start drawing and thinking aloud, leaving the rest of the group inactive and disengaged.

    Sometimes, this leads to Easel Madness. This is when some of the other participants grow so tired of just sitting there that they rush up and grab their own pens, with the result that the group now has three uncoordinated “facilitators”.

    The poor whiteboards and easels aren’t to blame of course, but I really like to leave them out now and again, and just sit around a round table or i a circle and just talk. Dialogue-style, that is.

    Thanks for an important article.

  2. I love this Esther, I couldn’t agree more. I’m forwarding it off to a few people who I know will appreciate your insights. The one thing I found in leading this way is that it allows others to shine as you ssid which then builds confidence and self esteem resulting in more cohesiveness in teams. Thank you for publishing this again!

  3. I have a question about breaking gridlock. I guess it only works when everybody is willing to follow someone else’s lead? What needs to happen when someone gets frustrated if no one is following his/her lead?

    • Hi, Kishen-

      I would put it a bit differently.

      It works when no one person on the team always insists that others always follow his ideas.

      It works when all members of the team are willing to hear other’s ideas, and expand their own thinking.

      It works when some team members have the awareness and ability to observe what’s happening for the team and follow someone else’s idea for the good of the whole team and with the aim of meeting the team goal. This doesn’t mean always bowing to one person, or following a very bad idea just to stop the argument.

      Often, people who push their ideas very hard feel like no one has really heard what they have to say. Point 2 helps with that.

  4. Outstanding writing, thinking and observation Esther;

    I’ve long be a proponent of the thinking, that many project failures, and business failures are due to lacking leadership.
    Somewhere along the way, many have misconstrued managing as leading; they are completely different.

    Great post….

  5. You’ve really hit the nail on the head, and this is one of the most difficult things for people in leadership roles to embrace. I think there is a distinction to be made between leadership and leadership roles. Leadership can and should come from anyone on the team, whereas a leadership role is a “necessary evil” of most organizational structures.

    People in leadership roles should be leadership enablers, encouraging others to step up, supporting them when they make mistakes, and helping them learn from those mistakes.

    As you point out, that requires people to be willing to step back from the spotlight. Most people in leadership roles got there because they exhibited some technical prowess and may be used to being in the spotlight. I know from my own early management/team lead experiences that being willing to step back took some getting used to but was necessary for the team to hit its full potential and take ownership of problems and solutions.

  6. The literature mentions various leadership styles – ‘democratic’ or hands off style is useful for tackling complex issues we face. As a team lead I used this style successfully, as the team got empowered, involved and creative.

    Complexity demands a synthesis of ideas before actions can be taken. A thesis (propounded by the leader or team member) countered by an anti-thesis (by another team member) yields this synthesis or balance.

    The ‘servant’ style of leadership is the next level, where the leader takes on the role of facilitator. The team objectives always remain top of the mind, rather than individual egos. Enter the scrum master and self-managed team.

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