The Fat Gray Line


The Fat Gray Line by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Antonio Martinez. Available at Flikr.com.

There is a “fat gray line” between leaders and followers. The follower side of this line is a zone where the followers work independently and self-sufficiently. On the leader side is the zone where the leaders work independently and unencumbered by followers. The zone in between is where followers and leaders work collaboratively or in some form of a coaching relationship. This is the “fat gray line.”

On The Line

What the follower does in the follower zone and what the leader does in the leader zone is not as important as what they do together in the gray zone. More than anything else, what leaders and followers do together impacts what they do independently. As leaders and followers work together, tacit and explicit values are taught and reinforced. The passions of both the leader and the follower are revealed. Their strengths and weaknesses are discovered. The organizational mission is personalized and reinforced. During this time of discovery and learning on the line in the gray zone, leaders and followers learn how to work together for mutual and organizational benefit. The time that leaders and followers spend together on the fat gray line has a profound impact on what they do when on their own side of the line.

When followers are new to an organization, they often need to spend quite a bit of time on the fat gray line. The process of being socialized into a new organization is more effective when leaders are actively involved. Followers also spend more time on the line when they are learning a new skill. Here, too, the leader’s involvement is important. He ensures that skill development proceeds at the proper pace and in the right direction.

It isn’t just followers that benefit from being on the gray line. Leaders do, too. Leaders learn from followers. A leader who claims no need to learn from his followers is a foolish leader. This truth is one reason why this is called a gray line—the distinction between leader and follower is blurred. It is fat because it covers a lot of territory—probably more territory than the zones that are exclusive to the leader and follower.

Crossing The Line

However, what happens when the leader or the follower crosses the fat gray line into the other’s zone? Many things can happen—some good and some not so good.

First, let’s set aside those crisis or emergency situations in which crossing the line is temporarily necessary. Instead, let’s focus on the two general scenarios where either the leader or the follower works in the other’s zone in the normal course of business.

When the follower is in the leader’s zone, the main issues are motive and awareness. Motive: Why is the follower in the leader’s zone? Perhaps he has been invited by a leader to take on a role or responsibility as a developmental exercise. Or, perhaps the follower has initiated and respectfully stepped into the leader zone to provide short-term leadership when a gap has appeared. These are good motives and there are others, too. However, sometimes a follower steps into the leader zone for the wrong reasons. Sometimes followers want to usurp, criticize, embarrass, or undermine leadership. These motives are never good and are almost always accompanied with a lack of awareness. These followers lack awareness of their own limitations, the organizational situation, and healthy methods of solving problems.

What about leaders who step into the follower zone? This is far more common than the opposite situation and it is actually more destructive to the organization and its people. The main issues here are trust and, again, awareness. This is primarily a trust issue because leaders who intrude on the follower’s zone are essentially demonstrating a lack of trust in their ability to get the job done. Some of you are thinking, “But they really can’t get the job done!” OK. Then find someone else to do the job. If you are hesitant to do that, then you are demonstrating a lack of trust in your own judgment. Trust is probably the most valuable relational commodity in business and if you do not have it in your organization leaders will be constantly stepping into the follower zone and impeding followers’ opportunities to grow and become a leader. Ongoing lack of trust in an organization is always accompanied by a lack of awareness. When leaders have awareness and understand the actual presence and impact of a lack of trust, they make changes.

The truth is that all of us are both leaders and followers. This further complicates the idea of the fat gray line. You will need to carefully assess each of your work relationships to determine what side of the fat gray line you are on and which side you should be on—or if you should be on the line.

Thanks to my student, Paul Eickenberg, who mentioned the term “fat gray line.” A conversation we had in class recently was the genesis of this article.

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