Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

Discerning When and How to Follow to Lead More Effectively

By Dr. Fila Bertrand

Dr. Bertrand is the vice president of information systems and program management at Appfire, and he is a faculty member for the MAOL program at Harding University.

I was thrust into a managerial role within months after graduating college, and I did not have the time to adjust to being in charge of people who had been managing others for longer than it took me to get my bachelor’s. The new job came with lodging given that training required travel and relocation and the benefit of a company vehicle once I completed my training. Since I did not have a reliable car or a place to stay, failure was not an option. I had to learn quickly how to lead highly experienced professionals to accomplish company goals without letting my inexperience become an obstacle. During these early years of my career, I learned one core leadership principle that has served me well in every industry. Effective leadership requires discerning when and how to follow.

Leadership requires the interaction between a leader and followers and is not just a position or title within an organization (see a “ Contemporary View of Leadership ” for context). Many professionals may say the right words, but they conduct themselves as workers who have inappropriately been given supervisory privileges. I’ve come across excellent and terrible managers during my career, and the good ones — the ones to whom we could adequately give the moniker of a leader — could discern the appropriate time to let someone else lead. Such leaders were also very gracious in temporarily surrendering the helm when the situation required it.

Knowing when and how to follow is a challenging capability to develop. It requires being humble and knowing that as leaders we must surround ourselves with highly talented individuals. Because of this choice, we must sometimes follow so our vision is accomplished. It requires admitting that we don’t have all the answers. It requires establishing necessary trust with those we lead so when we say “I support your decision and action plan,” they know we mean exactly what we say, that we surrender decision-making and execution to them. Most importantly, it requires the ability to clearly communicate how this relinquishing of our leadership role will work. But the beauty of this principle is that like most things it gets easier the more we do it.

Knowing when and how to follow is not a new a concept Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the famous 17th century samurai who compiled his experiences in the famous Hagakure , posited that one should never take on an endeavor one is  not  suited for.  The best course of action is to appoint others according to their natural abilities. Yet many individuals who could shine in a leadership role are hindered by their inability to discern when they should follow instead. To the organization’s loss, they fail to follow their highly talented team members because they have never taken the time to consider nor plan for this temporary reconfiguration of the leadership structure.

Reflect upon one of those managers you truly felt comfortable calling a leader. I would be surprised if any of those individuals did not have an inherent ability to let others shine by following them during the execution of a strategic or tactical initiative. Most importantly such leaders allow their team members to take the lead at the appropriate time and in a way that seems harmonious with the goals of the team or the organization. It’s always possible that leaders may use their power in the service of self-interest (see “ Distinguishing Leadership from Power ” as an example), but truly effective leaders seek results that benefit the organization they lead .

So how does one become a leader who knows when it is appropriate to sit back and let others temporarily take the helm? The simple answer is to practice this principle often. As the famous Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius proposed in his famous Meditations , one should “practice oneself even in the things one despairs of accomplishing, for even the left hand, which is ineffectual for all other things for want of practice, holds the bridle more vigorously than the right hand; for it has been practiced in this.” Following becomes easier the more one intentionally follows.

It isn’t easy, but anyone seeking to be an effective leader must incorporate this notion into their leadership toolkit. It may seem counterintuitive and perhaps even threatening, but effective leaders who know when to follow can solve complex organizational problems or handle high-stakes crises because they rely on the expertise of those around them without sacrificing their role. If you are a leader, you should earnestly pursue intentionally following others at the appropriate time. They will commit to the action plan you put in place and trust you during your leadership tenure.