Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way (Beatty’s Maxim #2)

Bob Beatty
Dec 14, 2017 · 5 min read

Last week I shared the first of the lessons I’ve learned in my career, what I dubbed Beatty’s Maxim #1: Be Open to Opportunity.

Today’s is an adaptation of a quote from General George S. Patton: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way. I honestly don’t remember where I first heard the quote and it wasn’t until I started to type up this post today that I even learned its origin. (Lesson: Always do your homework when posting quotes…)

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I also don’t recall exactly when the principle itself coalesced in my head — and how it became for me a maxim. At some point earlier in my career, I just remember this thought running through my head: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.

What exactly do I mean when I put this maxim to practice? First, here’s the lessons I learned as I employed this with others:

Lead. In this case, show me a way and if I see how clearly it’s a good way forward and/or believe the idea is worth a shot, I’m good with you being the leader. Contrary to popular belief, one doesn’t have to be THE leader in all cases. (And every leader doesn’t have to be THE leader every time.) Often you can lead from the chair or as a sargeant (in military parlance): leading your own team/initiative but reporting to an officer, the one with the bigger vision and/or the responsibility. This also reminds me to be a leader when I do have a strong vision for the task. I cannot shirk that responsibility.

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Follow. If you don’t have a great idea or plan to lead towards a solution, follow someone who does. In doing so, buy in wholeheartedly, not halfway. Support the leader in his/her work. Make that commitment to the team and help it move forward to whatever distant point you are collectively working towards. It also reminds me to be a follower if someone else is leading.

Or Get Out of the Way. Notice this isn’t and get out of the way. The use of “or” is very (very) intentional. You have a choice to lead or to follow, but doing nothing only slows down the process and leads to frustration in your and in your colleagues. I’ve learned it’s often the worst path to take.

When I am in problem-solving situations with others, what frustrates me more than anythin is intransigence. Sometimes people are truly “stuck” because of indecisiveness. This is something I have learned to deal with and, for the most part, is acceptable.

But this is not what I’m talking about. By not taking the mantle of leadership, nor agreeing to follow one who has, a person instead parks his/her car in the middle of a busy intersection, turns up the a/c and the music, and just…sits there. Body language and words connote, “I don’t agree with this, I don’t like this, but I don’t have any better idea so I’ll just do nothing and stymie the whole thing.”

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or Get Out of the Way.

Ultimately it is form of passive-aggression: “of or denoting a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials.” (There are a ton of materials on passive-aggressive behavior here.)

My goal isn’t to address passive-aggressive behavior in you or your colleagues. My goal is simply to share with you a key lesson that I have learned by this simple phrase, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

For me, this means:

Lead. I can be a leader if the time and situation call for it. There are times I felt in my heart of hearts that I know exactly where we need to go as an organization or team and I worked hard to help the team get there.

Follow. There were many, many times when I simply did not have that a clear vision for a task or a goal and I learned must be a follower. I learned that that was okay too, and to trust those around me who had a clear vision. I learned to trust other leaders to emerge — not only those on my peer level and above, leaders at all levels. In those cases, I was determined to be the best doggone follower I could be.

Or Get Out of the Way. Whatever you do, once the momentum train starts rolling, I learned not to just stand there with my arms crossed, pouting, or silently wishing for the leader to fail. This was (and remains) one of my biggest pet peeves; I find it to be one of the most counter-productive habits I have ever encountered.

As I said in an earlier blog post, “Our work matters, we know that.” Our service to our communities is profoundly important. I have learned that in trying to fulfill our mission(s), we simply to not have a lot of time for intransigence, obstinance, or passive-aggression.

I learned to Lead or to Follow. But most of all, I made the decision to Get Out of the Way if I can neither lead nor follow effectively.

Yes, this involves a measure of trust in others. Some might not have fully earned your trust. I get that too. Not every aphorism is perfect for every situation.

But this maxim has helped me tremendously over the years, even working with folks stuck in the “in the way” category (sometimes all it takes is pointing it out to others and they’ll quickly realize where they are here).

I encourage you to think about your situation today, personally or professionally. How can you be a leader or a better follower? Are you “in the way” for no other reason than you didn’t even realize that’s where you are? I’m interested in your thoughts. Please share them with me.

Beatty’s Maxim #2: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction. Join our mailing list.

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