I asked a question the other day and that was, “At what point does a leader lead by following?”
One response, from Susan Mazza (check out Susan’s Blog, Random Acts of Leadership here) is that leaders follow when they want to empower others to lead. And that, I think is one of the paradoxical things about leadership. Sometimes, to lead is also to follow.
But what does it actually look like? And, what does it take?
The other evening, I was watching one of my favourite TV shows, NCIS. I love it because the dynamics of the team of NCIS agents is so full of energy. The seriousness and gravity of their work is wonderfully offset by a lighthearted banter, a lot of mischief and loyalty to each other that transcends words.
In this show, it is clear who the boss is. Jethro Leroy Gibbs brings his marine training to the team. He runs a tight ship and everyone calls him “Boss” His leadership style is pace-setting. He expects the highest level of performance from everyone at all times. He drives them, challenges them and fiercely defends them. You simply don’t mess with Gibbs.
And yet, the other night, Gibbs gave over the leadership of the team to one of his agents, Tony DiNozzo and became a team member. Tony had knowledge of the case that he did not and so he said simply, “Your case, your lead…Boss”
Here is that portion of the episode that illustrates the power of leading by following. Watch it to the end and see what you think. To me, there are no grand gestures, only a simple acknowledgement, in a lot of little ways, that the leadership has shifted from one person to the other. DiNozzo steps forward and begins to take on the leadership mantle. Gibbs steps back and participates with the team. That, I think is often what it looks like if approached well. There is no fanfare or great speech. One simply gives way to the other in service of getting the job done.
So what does it take? Okay, this is what I think it takes:
- Accurate knowledge of a person’s capabilities. It stands to reason that it is unwise to throw the keys to the family car to someone who either doesn’t know how to drive or is always having accidents. So, as a leader, it is important to be solidly aware of just what people are capable of doing.
- Ability to judge potential in others to do more. Part of a leader’s role is to observe and to listen to what the people around them are saying and doing. Most people need encouragement and challenge before they can see that they are really capable of doing more.
- Courage to take risk. Not everything works out the way we imagine and so there is an element of risk to standing back and giving the job of leadership to someone else.
- Enough humility to set aside the ego in service of something greater. This can be a toughie. The ego does not take kindly to playing second fiddle, but sometimes following someone else’s lead produces a better result and it is the quality of the result that ultimately matters to good leaders.
What do you think it takes? What are your experiences with leading by following? What have I missed?