Leading Leaders vs Leading Followers

Road sign in Death Valley desert; arrow point two directions, left and right; no road in sight

How a leader thinks about members of the team is critical to what the team and that leader accomplish for the organization. This thinking includes many dimensions—the nature of the leader-follower relationship, the individuals vis a vis the organization’s values and goals, whether and how to develop individual’s skills and abilities, past performance history and beliefs about future potential, and so on. It’s complex. One dimension I was recently reminded of is the difference between leading those who want to be leaders and those who want to be followers. Pause for a moment and do a quick assessment of your team. Identify the leaders. Identify the followers. Should you lead them in the same way? Do they need the same things?

This idea leapt off the screen at me when I read a recent Ron Edmondson blog article, Wanting to be Led vs. Wanting to be a Leader. Ron makes some excellent points regarding this difference. For example:

The person who wants to be led desires structure. They want to follow the rules…. They tend to be more compliant and cause less conflict when the path ahead is clearly defined.

To encourage the greatest effectiveness for those who want to be led, the leader must plan and strategize differently. Leaders must structure and delegate work assignments differently.

In contrast, Ron describes those who want to lead this way:

The person who wants to be a leader needs space to dream, freedom to explore, and permission to experiment…. They continually need new challenges…. These people may stir conflict on a team – intentionally or not – because they enjoy testing and pushing the boundaries.

If this is to be encouraged and even fulfilled, the implications regarding trust, patience, and risk-taking tolerance for leaders of leaders are profound.

Leading those who want to lead can be more challenging than leading those who want to be led.

However, both are rewarding. Both are necessary in your team and the organization. Both contribute in valuable ways to individual and organizational success.

I don’t want to steal all of Ron’s “thunder,” so please read the rest of his article. He digs deeper into the differences between these two groups of people on your team. (He also has a related article called, The Way I Respond as a Leader of Leaders.)

Challenged by Ron’s ideas, I began to think about how to apply this with the people I lead as well as in coaching other leaders. Two realizations came to me—one more quickly than the other:

  1. I realized rather quickly that no individual is completely in one bucket or the other. All of us want to lead in some areas and want to be led in others.
  2. The other idea that took me a while to uncover is that there are also those who want to lead, but actually need to be led. At the same time, there are those who want to be led, but need to lead.

Both realizations helped me better understand situations I’ve seen in the past and others that I am currently helping leaders with. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to solutions.

Addressing the first realization, that all team members want to be led at some times and want to lead at others, requires their leader to be discerning and flexible. Transparency and communication is critical, too. Ask, “Dani, there are two ways we can approach this project. I’d like to know which resonates with you more.” Then, laying a want to lead approach alongside a want to be led approach will help you tune your “reading” of Dani’s desires as well as her true needs.

Regarding realization 2, that sometimes there is a mismatch between the lead/led want and need, I plan to follow up with another article. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on this issue. Your stories and insights will help us unpack that challenge and we can all learn.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Pablo Garcia Sardaña. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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