Do you follow the leader?

While researching trends in leadership in the current era, we reached out to hundreds of Gen X and Y rising leaders to ask what they want in a leader. We also researched the opposite desire – what leaders want in them.  The headline from this research is that the characteristics most desirable in rising leaders are best developed by mastering the practice of being a good follower.

Our experience and perspective from conversations with hundreds, if not thousands, of successful executives tells us that to be a good leader, you need to start early in your career and being a good follower of others is a reasonably accurate indicator of future success.

You will occasionally find a good leader that was a complete renegade and was unable to successfully follow in the footsteps of others early in their career.  These individuals are generally change agents and disruptors and are important to the ecosystem of leaders.  Such leaders are not however, the norm.  They are the outlier and not easily replicated.  By contrast, being a good follower is something everyone can learn and benefit from.  Being a good follower doesn’t mean losing your independence or desire to lead, it simply means being humble in your approach to learning from others and setting up a career where you are remembered positively.

During our research, we surveyed leaders and asked “What makes them want to invest in an individual?” By using the word “invest” we meant being willing to; identify, seek out, help, sponsor, mentor, elevate, and empower. We were eager to unpack when and why they celebrate certain people by giving them opportunities and resources before or instead of others. The answer?  It was something like this:

-“I’ll tell you straight out. What I want in young people is more self and situational awareness.  I also want consistency in good behavior, more decisiveness, more ambition, and less caution.”

If rising leaders think their brilliance is sufficient to be given opportunities, they’ll find there are a heck of a lot of brilliant competitors not only in this country but about 130 other countries also.  A strategy of relying on others recognizing and rewarding your brilliance is folly.

An effective leader makes sure that everybody gets the opportunity to ‘shine up’ – to be given a chance to show their potential. Helping to make leaders out of others is a fundamental job and requirement of a leader; that has not and will not change irrespective of technology or demographics.  But it is up rising leaders to decide whether to seize that opportunity or not.  This is where good following comes in to play.

So what makes up a good follower and gives others good reason to raise you up?  According to our research, good followers:

  • Have a good work ethic
  • Are trustworthy
  • Show self-confidence but zero arrogance
  • Are easy to be around
  • Being a hard and smart worker

Good followers have impeccable work ethic. Rising leaders want to be the best choice for stretch opportunities.  They really don’t want to be the “least worst choice”. In this pursuit, work ethic matters.  We have never heard a hiring manager or promotion panel that is seeking out the people who shirk or avoid responsibility and hard work. Nor will we ever hear of this, it simply won’t happen.

Julia LaRoche for asked legendary investor T. Boone Pickens, for advice. His answer, “First thing I’d say is if you haven’t developed a good work ethic you better do it. The work ethic is the backbone of success as far as I’m concerned..If you want to be a lawyer, geologist, or a nurse, work ethic comes first. Everything else falls into place…Be skilled at something unless you want to go out there and dig a ditch…Educating yourself doesn’t necessarily mean going to college – those things don’t matter unless you’ve developed a strong work ethic.”

Good work ethic is not only about the work effort you put forward, it is also about reliability, attention to quality, willingness to do whatever it takes and readiness to always deliver. People with great work ethic are focused and don’t tend to be the ones at the water cooler, they ask about deadlines and take them seriously.  They don’t clock on and clock off, they ask what results are needed and go about getting them.

Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack and Flickr, said in, “Work hard and be good to other people or you won’t have the life you want to have.”

Good followers are trustworthy which naturally makes them good leadership material for the future

The number one thing the people we polled said they want in a leader is someone who is trusted and honest.  Well, that’s pretty much the number one thing that leaders also want in someone that they promote.

Basic integrity principles are frankly lacking in current day business and politics. The most important reason a leader wants to trust you (as one of their key team members) is so he or she can relax. This element of following others is not important because leaders specifically care about raising some moral standard- it is simply more effective for everyone in team settings.

Leaders want to know they can leave someone “in charge” and not worry.  The cost, time, and effort of watching an employee is quite high and having followers that are unquestioned in their ethics and reliability has incredible value to both the leader and the organization.

Good leaders know they are going to get “played” sometimes. It might be by a lawyer, the government, customers, vendors, direct reports, family members, or friends.  Leaders know that they will be manipulated or mistreated so if there is a person who they can consistently rely on to not lie, steal, cheat, or swindle them, it will stand out.

The popular buzzword of “transparency” simply means “tell the truth”. It’s bandied about a lot more then it’s actually done but giving transparency to those you are accountable for is an easy way to earn opportunities and learn new things.

Proving you are trustworthy takes time. An effective leader has every right and the definite need to test their team to see what they are made of. Very, very small transgressions get noticed. As a follower, leaving even the tiniest question about your trustworthiness will close the door a little for future stretch assignments.

Take no shortcuts. It won’t be rewarded with me. Be the same to my face as you are behind my back.”

Good followers have self-confidence but zero arrogance. In general, people accept others as they present themselves until they have evidence that you aren’t what you seem. If you show confidence when you meet and interact with people for the first time, they will have confidence in you. If you are arrogant with a self-important/full-of-oneself attitude you will get noticed, but, for the wrong reason.

Confidence is two pronged. First and foremost, it is what you feel inside.  Secondly, it is what you show the world.  Inner self confidence comes from accomplishment and attitude and the what you show to the world comes from self-discipline, practice and a desire to express your genuine confidence.

To develop the “inside” part of confidence, you need to seek real successes in even small things.  Starting with one small thing is the first step. We suggest having something tangible that you did and did well. Then trying to get two more successes of growing importance in that same arena. In our experience it takes three favorable outcomes to make you start believing you can do more in that area. True inner confidence comes from that deliberate exercise into progressively more difficult situations.

After you have built a strong of small successes, start collecting the evidence of accomplishment.  This is the way to get to know yourself and see the pattern you tend to follow as to what kind of problems you are attracted to, what approached you use to deal with them, and the results.

As Sonia Cheng, the 29 year old CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group  said: “It was a steep learning curve for me, and I certainly did a crash course in the beginning to get myself up to speed on everything – from operations, sales and marketing, human resources, and more…Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how successful you may become, do not fall victim to ego and pride, and it’s always through humility that you really open your eyes to how the world is changing.” Sonia Cheng,

-“Be humble and grounded enough to know that growth takes time and an open mind.”

Good followers are easy to be around.  A person in a leadership role has the latitude to decide whom she or he wants to hang with. That’s one of the perks.  Good followers are able and willing to laugh at themselves.  They see the humor in the unpredictable of their job and in life in general.  They are happy when people kid around with them at work; that means others see promise in them. It’s no coincidence there is a similarity between the words “funnybone and backbone.”

With so many choices open to a leader: remote workers, global workers, robots, leaders don’t need to waste their time with someone who requires more coping with then they are willing to or able to provide.

You can question anything with an attitude of, “I want to make this happen and want to make sure I know all I can at this point to make it happen….” However, if you whine, blame, or complain, you’ll get noticed, but, again for the wrong reasons.

Get a reputation as a game changer who makes a positive difference in other people’s

Being a hard and smart worker. Work ethic trumps brilliance just like integrity trumps brilliance.  Most importantly you get to know something. When you know something of value you are valued.

A good response when asked to do something is, “I’ve got this,”  or “consider it done.”  Then do it.  People will empower you with responsibility and authority if you give them reason to trust you. They will give you progressively harder tasks as you raise their expectations, which you then strive to surpass.

If you take the initiative when others hold back, step up to the bat and take on a difficult job when others steer clear of it, volunteer when other don’t, and take the lead when others don’t by definition you are a leader.

A particularly good question to ask as a follower is; “What are your expectations of me?” and then work to meet them. The reason for question is not to show how smart you are, argue, or challenge for challenge sake, it’s to improve your problem-solving ability.

Also, learn to communicate without electronic devices. Chose the warmth of a human hand vs a piece of plastic in your hand.   Your cell phone has already replaced your calendar, your camera, your stereo, your television, your alarm clock, and your watch. Don’t let it replace your friends and family.

Communicate by listening more than talking.  There are brilliant people in their field who are inconsiderate human beings who don’t know how to listen.  Not sure if it is a coincident or not but listen and silent have the same letters in the words.  Listening and hearing are two different things; people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.

A favorite saying of ours from Buddha, “If you want to know your future, then look at yourself in the present, for that is the cause of the future.”


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