Following the Leader

There are a lot of posts, books, talks, speeches, classes, degrees, and other methods and modes of education completely dedicated to leadership. But what about being a follower? We don’t hear much about that, mainly because leadership is lauded, praised, desired, rewarded, and coveted. But when you have a leader, and that leader is not you, then you have certain duties, responsibilities, and obligations, not only to the leader, but also to the organization being led by that leader.
Using the video above, which is a short clip from the classic 1978 debauchery that is Animal House, let’s have a look at a few responsibilities of those who are not the leader.
  • Do you have your leader’s back? As we see in this clip, the frat boy in the trench coat, a.k.a. “Stork”, takes out the leader, and nobody does a thing. Stork usurps the position of the leader without any question from the followers. Now, in a business, sometimes the leader is there forever, or until he or she retires and voluntarily hands over the reigns. But sometimes it’s not that simple, meaning there’s a power struggle within the organization. Obviously, this band leader did not build loyalty into his troops, and they abandoned him without a fight.
  • Are you following a person or a position? Many memes around the interwebz say things like “your position gives you authority, but your leadership gives you influence.” So ask yourself, are you following whoever it is that’s in charge, or are you following someone you believe in, have confidence in, and trust with your future? The band members didn’t even break stride (good for them; they’re trained to do so) when their leader was physically removed, and replaced by an impostor. They were following the position, not the person.
  • Have you ever questioned your leader? Leaders, good and bad, are usually quite adept at speaking and acting with authority, or they would not have been put into a leadership position to begin with. So, just because a leader implements action with authority and confidence doesn’t mean those actions are correct. This leader – Stork – intentionally led his followers into a dead end alley. He planned it, did it with confidence, and perfectly executed his strategy, and not one of his followers ever questioned the direction in which he was leading them. It’s ok to question leadership, if you do it professionally, respectfully, confidently, and with a strong case for your actions.
  • Do you pay attention to the crowd? Notice as the “band leader” Stork turns down the alley, the crowd of observers is still cheering (yes, I know it’s a movie) as if that’s what they were supposed to do. Sometimes, especially in Techstartupville, it’s easy to hear the cheers of the crowd and think you’re doing the right thing, going in the right direction, being successful. But the crowd wasn’t being led to a horribly embarrassing demise, were they? Too often, the fans of an organization are blind to the direction of that organization, because they are fans only.
  • Did you wait until it was too late to change direction? When the leader finally abandons the band members, it’s too late to turn back, and the trombones crash dreadfully into the wall. Still, nobody stops. They are leaderless now, and there is no second in command to take control, reverse the ship, and save the team. They all simply keep shoving themselves into the brick wall, while their false leader escapes right in front of their eyes. They had time, before they hit the wall, to stop, recognize their mistake, and turn things around. But they were so firmly trained to just follow, without question, whoever was holding that blessed baton.
  • Who is in charge when the leader is gone? In my two jobs prior to starting my first business, there was no doubt that while the cat was away, the mice would play. When the boss was gone, the atmosphere in the office changed, simple as that. That’s a culture issue, in addition to a leadership issue, but the solution is fairly simple. There needs to be a very clear leadership succession plan. Not to be morbid here, but life is short, and life happens. You never know when you, or your leader, are going to be knocked out of action. Every organization should have a plan for when a leader is out of commission, either temporarily or permanently.

While leaders have an incredible responsibility on their shoulders, their followers (aka employees, partners, etc.) are not without obligation. The easiest way to find new leaders in an organization is to see who naturally steps up when things go sideways, or when the leader of the organization is forcibly removed by a wayward fraternity member.

What do you think about that?