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Mindset #4: Follow or Lead? Which comes first?

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Mindset #4: Follow or Lead?

The first principle in understanding the gravity of Leadership is:

Everything that happens – or fails to happen – in your unit (or team, company, department) is 100% the responsibility of the leader. Everything. Not just the things you can see, or directly influence, or do yourself. Everything.

We also know from research into teaming (Follower-Leader Dynamic) that the five most desirable traits in a great follower (and teammate) are:

  • 1) taking responsibility,
  • 2) serving,
  • 3) taking moral action,
  • 4) challenging, and
  • 5) participating in transformation (adaptability).

All five qualities are important and appropriate to a greater degree than others at certain times. However, of thousands of leaders surveyed, and asked to pick which was most important to them? What they wanted mostly from a team? They wanted their teammates – their Followers – to “take responsibility!” And “taking responsibility” was reported as the most important Follower trait in greater numbers than the other four traits combined.

I remember my first formal leadership course in basic training in special operations. The instructor staff started the first day of the first class by telling us that “Everything that happens – or fails to happen – in your platoon is 100% your responsibility! Everything.”

One of the first things I wondered was, “what about the things I don’t know about, or aren’t in my direct control, or aren’t my fault?” It’s a valid question and concern for anyone taking on their first real leadership role. And it’s THE central challenge for a leader. Things may not be your fault, and not in your direct control, but they’re still 100% your responsibility. This is THE crux and irony of the leadership challenge. When asked how to develop leadership, or what’s my definition of leadership, I personally always start with followership. You don’t train a leader to lead a team if they’ve never learned to be a good teammate, a good follower first.

If you subscribe to the philosophy that “Everything that happens – or fails to happen – in your unit is 100% your responsibility!” And if “taking responsibility” is the most desirable trait of a great follower and teammate then it naturally follows that the way to train leaders is to train followers and teammates first! If you learn to take responsibility as a teammate, then you’ll be conditioned to take 100% responsibility for everything, whether your fault or not. Your responsibility nonetheless.

In 1981, prisoner of war survivor and U.S. Navy VADM James B. Stockdale gave a speech at John Carroll University titled “The ‘Melting Experience’: Grow or Die.” This speech is just one of many curated in his book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. In the speech at John Carroll, VADM Stockdale reminds us that after this eight-year experience (he’s referencing eight years as a Vietnam prisoner of war) he

“distilled one all-purpose idea, plus a few corollaries. It’s a simple idea, an idea as old as the scriptures, an idea that is the epitome of high-mindedness, an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure. If the pressure is intense or of long enough duration, this idea spreads without even the need for its enunciation. It just takes root naturally . . . That idea is you are your brother’s keeper.“

When a student at the U.S. Naval Academy, and then later tested in combat, it’s VADM Stockdale’s guidance upon which I often reflected. When learning to lead in a crisis, it was VADM Stockdale who again gave us this recommendation: you must be a steward. A leader must remember that she is responsible – able to respond – to situations, people, circumstances. She must tend the flock, not only cracking the whip but also “washing their feet.”

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