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.