Why Every Great Leader Must First Become a Great Follower

The best leaders know how to step back and follow.

Being a leader and being a follower are two elements of the exact same process and environment/or continuum. Inevitably when someone says, “I am a leader,” or some other such phrase they are, by definition, also usually a follower. You can’t be a good leader unless you have first practiced, or are simultaneously practicing, the art of following (or follower-ship).

Learning how to be in-step with others is key to both disciplines.

If you’re a Vice President of Something for a corporation, you “follow” a leader or manager, and you also, simultaneously, lead your teams and manage your groups.

The skills that you learn as a follower, if you are a good follower, make you a better leader. The skills that you learn as a leader, if you are a good leader, and are paying attention to the influence you’re having on your team, will make a better follower.

With that creative, virtuous cycle, the more you focus on how to effectively follow, the more able and competent, and expert you are at leadership; which, in turn, creates a skill in the leadership area that allows you to be a better follower of those who you are following.

Leadership is not a top-down model.

All too often we think too linearly in this model. Someone is “above” me, that I’m following, and someone is “below” me, who I am leading. I’d rather look at it as a 360 revolving situation, where it isn’t a linear equation, but a much more fuzzy diagram - and much more organic and dynamic.

I am leading amorphous groups and I am influencing people here and there and everywhere-else independent of the organization chart. My influence, my “leadership” cuts across barriers, lines, and circles or boxes on a chart, teams and organizational chart lines. Likewise, my “follower-ship” is both inside and outside the organization and “my team”.

I (choose to) follow some people who inspire me, I follow some other people who “manage” me — because the 0rg-chart says I should. I follow some other people that I want to follow because they lead me where I want to go, both in the organization and outside.

I have a responsibility to fulfill all the tasks assigned to me, to do my job, well, as it were, but I also have an organizational and personal responsibility to become as good as I can become as an individual and in the role that I am assigned in the organization.I look cross-functionally for ways to be inspired in that regard, for people to follow that can help me get there. Likewise, I make myself available as a leader to others who wish to follow me to wherein I can provide some degree of leadership.

One segues nicely into the other, and then the other segues nicely back into the original. I don’t know of any great leaders who weren’t at the same time, or previously, followers. Inevitably you are both at that exact same point in time.


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Aaron Webber is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Webber Investments LLC, as well as a Managing Partner at Madison Wall Agencies.

Check out my Quora, & LinkedIn pages for more.