Good, skilled followers are able to nurture good leadership, by invisibly helping keep a novice leader upright and on track. It’s a lost art in our narcissistic times.
There is a conundrum in leadership: Most of the people who naturally gravitate toward leadership roles don’t have the humility or decency you’d want in a leader. And most of the humble and decent people that we might want to see in leadership roles quickly feel chewed up by the tensions, the criticisms, the thanklessness of the job. They soon retreat to safety or they end up curled up in a ball in a corner office. And only their more ruthless counterparts are left to compete for supremacy.
If we want to have any hope of changing this, we have to do a better job of building up the people who aren’t natural leaders but who have qualities that can serve our organizations and our communities.
Here are five steps that you can take to nurture better leaders in your workplace and your everyday life, by being a more skilled and generous follower:
1. Stop being a consumer, and start being a producer. Don’t see yourself as an impatient judge of talent, only able to be satisfied by the very best. See yourself as a scout, producer and nurturer of talent that others might overlook. The narcissists who dominate the leadership arena will naturally find the confidence they need to stay in the game. Your service to humanity involves giving some confidence to the quality talent that lacks that natural confidence.
2. Listen and affirm. Stop to listen attentively when a normally reserved member of the staff speaks up at a meeting. If she seems nervous, do your best to affirm her for expressing her opinion, and weigh that opinion as charitably and thoughtfully as humanly possible.
3. Sit still, already. If you’re at an event or conference, don’t see it as a chance to go get coffee whenever a “lesser light” takes the podium. See yourself as a craftsperson, with each head-nod and each moment of applause helping polish a jewel or blossom a bud.
4. Give generous but honest feedback. If you think a novice manager or speaker or performer did a good job, don’t be stingy with the feedback. Don’t go so far as to claim that even their mistakes were delightful, just be encouraging about what they did well.
5. See it as a dance. In social dance, one person leads and one follows. This isn’t about superiority or dominance or submission. It’s just a practical issue of who initiates a movement, but it is always an interplay.
Let me offer a helpful image: As a male, I’m usually expected to “lead” in social dance. But I’m a mediocre dancer. And along the way, I’ve found that there are two kinds of partners that stand out:
1. Unskilled and ungracious partners. They are about as unskilled as I am. We throw each other off in our rhythm and our steps. And they are barely able to contain their disgust and disappointment in my inability to lead them well. They know, as do I, that they would look infinitely better out there if they were paired with a more skilled and experienced leader.
2. Skilled and gracious partners. They are far more skilled than I, and they invisibly keep me upright and in rhythm. They are in a sense leading through their follower role. They encourage, they create space for risk and improvisation, they keep the mood light, and they create a great experience for both of us.
The dance metaphor gets close to that noble but elusive leadership ideal wherein organizations become arenas in which, no matter our roles, we help one another to shine. A skilled follower helps an inexperienced leader to shine. As the leader grows in skill, he or she is then able to help the followers to shine. And as they all grow in experience and skill, the interplay grows more productive and life-affirming.
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