Leadership and Followership

No. 58
Posted on 2/26/2018 by Mark Hutchinson

"I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men."
- Lao Tzu

"Power isn't control at all- power is strength, and giving that strength to others. A leader isn't someone who forces others to make him stronger; a leader is someone willing to give his strength to others that they may have the strength to stand on their own."
- Beth Revis

From ancient master to modern writer, our authors today are digging beneath the surface into the heart of leadership. Both quotes appear to be paradoxical at first blush but there is tremendous wisdom available to you right here in these few words.

One of the most common misperceptions I run into related to leadership is that being a leader gives you control over other people. Almost like a super power or a driver’s license – once you become a leader (seemingly bestowed by some greater power in the sky) then you will automatically receive the obedience you deserve from your underlings, your proclamations will be hailed as good both far and wide, and your orders will be carried out quickly and effectively. Sure there may be some grousing about but, as the grand leader, you have the authority to discipline and dispatch, if necessary, any trouble makers that don’t see things your way.

Have you ever seen a leader that seemed to hold this point of view? I bet you have.

Since, so far, everyone has been a child, we’ve all had the opportunity to be a follower and observe at least one leader. It is pretty likely that your parents were not the only leaders you have ever experienced during your life and that you have probably felt the grasping of hands trying to control your behavior at one time or another. Maybe it didn’t feel very good. Maybe it made you want to resist. Maybe you were hurt or shamed or intimidated into submission. Is that all you know of leadership?

Most any parent has learned that what they thought of the ideal of leadership doesn’t seem to apply when their two year old is face down in the aisle of the grocery store screaming and kicking. Even as a two year old knows – they have the ability to undermine your power and control even though their own well-being depends completely upon you. Although you have the physical strength to forcibly remove or restrain the child, it is amazingly difficult to get out of the store with any dignity still intact. That small, uneducated, untrained child still has a great deal of power and capacity to resist their “leader.”

These, and other similar experiences, often become what we base our own leadership thinking upon. It worked on us, why can’t we just do that to other people and call ourselves the leaders?

The answer is, of course, that you can. Most people do. Yet the results of leading others in this manner are very limited and the leader tends to experience constant frustration, resistance, and fear of losing control.

Throughout human history there have been many great leaders and much has been written about what attributes are found within these individuals. Perhaps some were gifted in certain areas. However, what has been learned from thousands of years of seeing the good, the bad and the ugly of leadership helps to inform our thinking today. Great leaders do not wield power like a hammer. Great leaders don’t subjugate others to their will. Great leaders connect with people, build a vision of common goals, inspire people to reach for those goals and support them along the way.

We all lead and follow to some extent or another. It takes focus and practice to be good at either. So look for opportunities to practice your leadership skills. Be critical of yourself and your motivations so you can improve. Be wary of feelings of power and control. Check the actual results of your efforts and make adjustments to improve.

If you’re called on to be a leader, or if you just happen to be the person standing there in the moment, do the best you can to pull people together, build them up, focus their energy, and help them go forward. When it is truly for them and not yourself, then leading becomes fulfilling, meaningful, and a powerful force for good in the world.

Think of opportunities you might have to practice being a good leader. It doesn’t have to be a big thing: maybe a party for a friend, a field trip at the your child’s school, a work project for a local charity. Strive to be a great leader even in the most mundane situations and you will improve quickly. Now go out and do your best!

Have a great week!

~ Mark
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