Lead, Follow, or Get out of the way

Thu, March 28, 2013, 10:16 PM under Career

This is one of the sayings (attributed to Thomas Paine) that totally resonated with me from the first time I heard it, which was only 3 years ago during some training course at work:

"Lead, Follow, or Get out of the way"

You'll find many books with this title and you'll find it quoted by politicians and other leaders in various countries at various times... the quote is open to interpretation and works on many levels.

To set the tone of what this means to me, I'll use a simple micro example: In any given conversation, you are either leading it or following it, at different times/snapshots of the conversation. If you are not willing or able to lead it, and you are not willing or able to follow it, then you should depart. The bad alternative which this guidance encourages you NOT to do is to stick around and obstruct progress by not following, not leading, and simply complaining or trying to derail the discussion in no particular direction.

The same pattern applies at your position/role at work. Either follow your management/leadership team, or try to lead them to what you think is a better place, or change jobs. Don't stick around complaining about the direction things are going, while not actively trying to either change things or make peace with it.

In the previous paragraph you can replace the word "your management" with "the people reporting to you" and the guidance still holds. Either lead your direct reports to where you think they should go, or follow their lead, or change jobs. Complaining about folks not taking direction while doing nothing is not a maintainable state.

To me this quote is not about a permanent state, it is not about some people always leading and some always following: It is about a role/hat that anybody can play/wear at any given moment. One minute I am leading you, the next I am following you, and the next we are both following someone else and so on... When there is disagreement, debate the different directions for as long as it takes for you to be comfortable that you can either follow or lead. If you don't become comfortable with either of those, get out of the way. Something to remember is that it is impossible to learn how to lead well, without learning how to follow well (probably deserves its own blog entry)...

Things go wrong when someone thinks that they must always be leading, or when everybody wants to follow and nobody steps up to lead... Things go wrong when more than one person wants to lead and they don't try to reach agreement on a shared direction, stubbornly sticking to their guns pulling the rest of the team in multiple directions... Things go wrong when more than one person wants to lead and after numerous and lengthy discussions, none of them decides to follow or get out of the way... Things go wrong when people don't want to lead, don't want to follow, and insist on sticking around...

While there are a few ways things that can go wrong as enumerated in the previous paragraph, the most common one in my experience is the last one I mentioned. You'll recognize these folks as the ones that always complain about everything that is wrong with their company/product but do nothing about it. Every time you hear someone giving feedback on how something is wrong or suboptimal, ask them "So now that you identified the problem, what do you think the solution is and what are you doing to drive us to that solution?"

The next time things start going wrong, step up and remind everyone: Lead, Follow, or Get out of the way.

For more perspectives, and for input to help you form your own interpretation, search the web for this phrase to see in what contexts it is being used (bing, google). Finally, regardless of your political views, I hope you can appreciate if only as an example this perspective of someone leading by actually getting out of the way.