Why Great Leaders Were Once Great Followers

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By Jas Singh

Leaders. Those who lead from the front. Make big decisions. Steering the ship. Inspiring others. Huge responsibility.

Many of us aspire to be leaders in our chosen calling.

So we develop role models. Those we look up to. And try to emulate their leadership traits – decisiveness, boldness, and when necessary – single mindedness.

In today’s world leadership is even considered a position of authority. The buck stops with the leader. Leadership is almost considered a personal trait – you either have it or you don’t.

Yet in ten years as a hiring specialist, I’ve noticed something quite ironic.

Leaders are rarely born.

In fact, most leaders spend most of their lives as effective “followers” before stepping up to leadership.

They develop most of their expertise whilst following others. In many cases, some of the highest performing leaders once never aspired to leadership – even may be tried to avoid it.

In his world famous book “Think and Grow Rich” the best selling author Napoleon Hill analysed over 25,000 of the most successful people of all time. He found that in most cases, the best followers made the most successful leaders.

Even today – many of the top leadership icons in all industries – President Obama, Marc Benioff and Christine Lagarde were loyal followers for many years before stepping up to outright leadership.

Following others well is the fastest route to leadership.

Here are some reasons why great followers make great leaders.

The better you follow, the more you learn

One of the most important assets of being a great follower is that it allows you to learn more – and learn more quickly. Those who follow better gain more knowledge from others leaders.

The greatest achievers never try to re-invent the wheel. They realise the world is full of people with the skills and knowledge they are looking for. Rather than learn everything from scratch, or rely purely on self-study, they understand the fastest way to learn is to emulate the best. And then build on it.

The faster you learn, the faster you will accelerate to positions of leadership. This is why some of the greatest leaders of all time have insisted early on their careers to find the best mentor possible. Warren Buffet for example, once famously knocked on the offices of the economist Benjamin Graham literally harassing him to give him an opportunity to work under him. For hardly any money. He spent nearly a decade under his tutorship before deciding to go out and set up his first investment business.

Leadership requires knowledge. And knowledge is often only developed through following others effectively.

Followers often earn the opportunity to lead

Another benefit of being an effective follower is that it allows leaders of the future to develop their mettle. To earn their spurs. To get that big break.

Often, in an attempt to accelerate to leadership overnight, becoming an effective follower is overlooked. People move jobs just to gain promotion. They set up their own businesesses so they can be “the boss”. They emphasize education, qualifications or finances over one important thing. Experience.

Although sometimes necessary, moving to leadership without experience as a follower can often be counterproductive.

It’s often said that the harder you work for something, the more you value it.

That is very true of followers who earn the right to become leaders. Through years of hard work and being loyal to others, they finally get the reward for their graft. Often this means they treat the opportunity to lead with more privilege and value. It can even mean gaining more respect from others who have seen them work their way to the top.

Great followers earn the right to lead.

Followers develop empathy

But perhaps the most important asset of being a good follower in leadership is the fact that it brings important perspective. Once-upon-a-time followers know what it is like to be led. What they expect from a leader. How to be an effective team player.

Being a good follower brings empathy. A quality essential in leadership, and found recently to be lacking in most organisations across the world, including many of the largest businesses.

You see the paradox of it all is that great leaders understand that there is no line between being a leader and a follower. To be effective, you need to be both. Just like great religous and philosophical leaders practiced what they preached, the same is true of leaders in all callings.

Great leaders never emphasize the authority of their leadership.

In fact, they spend most of their team serving their teams, relying on their advice and following them when necessary. And only making tough decisions when they have to.

Seeing the world from the perspective of your followers is critical in leadership.

Conclusion

All of us want to be successful.

And in many cases this involves becoming great leaders – for our businesses, our societies, even our families.

Yet in an attempt to be strong leaders we should never overlook that following others well is just as essential to success.

Hiring managers should ensure they analyse leaders of the future in detail – to ensure that they have also demonstrated following others well.

Have you been a great follower?

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