We need to stop thinking about leaders and followers as two separate entities.
What comes to mind when you think of influential leaders? Success, groundbreaking innovation, an enormous following on social media—this is what sets top leaders a part: money and acclaim. That’s why when we’re asked to identify today’s top leaders, you’ll likely find the likes of Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet on that list.
Leadership has become a glorified position across every industry. To be in a leadership position is to realize the American Dream—a fantasy everyone wants to chase. Because of a leader’s reputation, many believe that the only way to achieve notable success is to throw themselves into the pursuit. After all, leaders are the ones who make headlines and are featured on honorary lists.
I find this to be problematic, not because leaders don’t deserve to be accredited for their achievements, but because leaders shouldn’t be the only ones in the spotlight. I may have held the title of CEO, however, it’s my team who really drives the business. Yes, titles do exist, and there are varying levels of responsibility at any company, yet these titles (Manager, Director, or even Vice President) do not make someone a leader.
Leadership is a steadfast process; it requires constant adaptation and evolution. There is no real “end” to developing yourself as a leader. Yet, the journey must begin and persist with you being both a leader and a follower.
Leaders vs. followers—why not be both?
There is a dangerous disposition that many leaders learn along the way where they assimilate leadership with superiority. When we see ourselves as more valuable because of the position we hold, we are cultivating an environment where followers, then, must be inferior. This is usually unspoken, of course, but it’s alarming nonetheless.
When this is the culture we create, we communicate to our associates that being a follower is reflective of their inexperience and shortcomings. It fosters a narrative that being a follower isn’t an achievement, but rather a consequence of not having the ability to become a suitable leader. Not only should followers be just as revered as leaders (they boast the same skill sets and are often more qualified than their bosses), there is also an explicit link between the two.
Leaders and followers need one another. Oprah Winfrey would not be a household name if it weren’t for her followers, just as famous authors are nothing without their loyal readers. Just as leaders need followers to succeed, followers need influential leaders in order to develop their talents and excel in the workplace. This interdependence is important; you can’t have one without the other.
The value of strategic thinking in the workplace
Robert Kabacoff, Vice President of Research at Management Research Group, studied thousands of senior executives and managers and here’s what he found: they all believe that strategic thinking is the most critical leadership trait for success—beyond communication, persuasion, and innovation. Whether you agree with that or not isn’t the point. Regardless, it’s undeniable that strategic leaders are among the most effective leaders.
Once you’re an established leader, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of strategic thinking. This is especially true in leaders who refuse to relinquish a bit of control in their day-to-day operations in fear of missing out when they should be focusing on big-picture growth instead. Leaders who are followers first tend to place a higher emphasis and focus on strategy than those who aren’t. This is because followers, among others, know that their professional development is contingent upon thinking strategically.
Taking on new responsibilities and coming up with creative solutions is how you eventually reach your desired role, whether that comes with a leadership title or not. Leaders need to go back to these roots, while also relying on their associates to aid them in identifying new opportunities for growth. I constantly look to my team for ideas. If not for them, the company would’ve never become a driver of innovation like it is today.
Don’t believe that you know it all, because you don’t. This mindset is limiting to both your development and to the potential profitability of your business. When you recognize these traits that make your associates so great, you will realize that when the entire company is working towards the same goal, amazing things can happen.
Running a business is about the “we,” not the “me”
When it comes time to promote an associate into a new role, think about the first people who come to mind: it’s likely someone who you’ve already identified as a dedicated, strong team member. These qualified individuals are self-starters, positive attributes to the team, and have a people-first approach to leadership. Despite their multitude of redeeming traits, it’s the followers that put the needs and opinions of others above all else that really stand out.
Followers, having been more involved in the day-to-day, are more likely to possess a mindset focused on the “we” rather than the “me.” They know how leaders can undermine feedback and squander innovation simply because they’ve likely been in those environments before. Coming from these situations, these associates will use their experience to transform what effective leadership should really look like.
When your team is in disarray, you end up isolating your associates and, instead, create a lethargic environment with an apathetic workforce. When leaders are also followers, they can better identify the gaps in their company’s structures and processes, which leads to better-run businesses. You can distinguish what works from what doesn’t; what inspires motivated and engaged associates versus an environment where team members only care about their work as far as their paycheck is concerned.
The pursuit of the American Dream isn’t stepping over people in order to achieve the highest amount of success. Behind every great leader is a celebrated follower. One is not “better” than the other; it’s the union of both that promotes success. When a leader can understand what it takes to be a follower, they will be a better asset to their team.