Leadership Isn’t About Being First

by Sharlyn Lauby on February 21, 2012

I love sharing with you guys some of the offbeat comments I see in my Twitter stream.  Here’s another one for the books:

Leadership is about going first!

I get the point on some level. Leaders should be able to chart the course.  The “lead” in leadership implies some level of being first.  But the reality is sometimes leaders should go last.  Let me tell you a story from a previous life.

I was a part of a management team that, prior to the company’s annual strategy session, the CEO and COO would leadership, leaders, managers, management, skills, strategybreak managers into work groups and give them a company problem to solve. What you were assigned had absolutely nothing to do with your job title. In fact, one year I was on a team to figure out what happened to luggage when it went missing at the airport. (oh the stories…)

It was our responsibility to work together in researching the issue, brainstorm possible solutions, formulating a recommendation and presenting it at the strategy session. The CEO and COO, along with the rest of the management team, would listen to our presentation and recommendation. They asked questions and then voted whether or not to proceed with the group’s recommendation.

In this case, our leaders – being the CEO and COO – weren’t first. They could have easily developed an agenda for the strategy meeting that involved them telling the rest of us their vision for the company and our role in making the mission possible. It would have been enlightening, energizing and educational.

Instead they said, “You guys are going to be responsible for making these things happen for our company. So you tell us what you see and how we should fix it. We’re not going to let you fail. So if we think your assumptions are wrong or your recommendation is off…we’re gonna tell you. But since you have to fix it, let’s hear your take on the solution.”

My story can be easily translated to the high performing team. They know what to do and how to do it. Our role as a leader isn’t to be first. It’s to support the team.

It also applies on an individual level. Think of how leaders develop their employees. If the leader is always first, it doesn’t allow anyone else to be. Many times we need to let our future leaders go first so they can develop their skills.

Leadership isn’t about being first. It’s about knowing when to go first and when to let others go first. A subtle distinction but an oh so important one.

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{ 9 comments }

Ginger February 21, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Nicely said, Sharlyn! Some of my favorite managers were those who had just that right balance of providing instruction/guidance and setting the stage for original, creative thought from others.

Sharlyn Lauby February 22, 2012 at 11:16 am

Thanks for the comment Ginger. Balance is key.

Don Mercer February 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Good article and right on the money. To see that point and others amplified, go to http://www.follow-to-lead.com and read about the book. Since there are thousands of books on Leadership, I thought it was about time to address followership for the 99%! A hint: Great leaders started as great followers.

Diane Brogan February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Great ideas. It is easy to see this was written by a leader :)
Diane Brogan recently posted..Forbidden – A Book Review

Sharlyn Lauby February 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm

@Don – Thanks for the comment and sharing a resource.

@Diane – Aw shucks…I’m blushing. :-) Thanks for commenting!

PM Hut March 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Actually in this day and age leadership is about being last. Whoever wrote that comment has probably not heard before about servant leadership paradigm, which is one of the hottest leadership types in the project management world (and the most efficient as the project manager doesn’t usually have any authority).
PM Hut recently posted..4 Ways to Motivate Your Project Team

Sharlyn Lauby March 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Thanks so much for the comment and resource. I’m a fan of servant leadership and Robert Greenleaf.

Don Mercer March 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm

First, last or in the middle? Where is the leader? Interesting discussion and my answer is it depends on what we are talking about.

I understand that Israeli shepherds lead their sheep, whereas in the rest of the world they are mostly hearded from behind.
The U.S. Army names its officers who are in charge of combat units as ‘commander.’ But there is one exception. At the lowest level where an officer is in charge his title is platoon leader.

The platoon leader is not always at the tip of the spear, but sometimes he certainly is. The motto of the Infantry is ‘Follow Me’ and that is ingrained into every graduate of the Infantry School’s officer course.

But that same platoon leader is taught to eat in the field only after his 40 men have been fed first. Why, because he is responsible for their well being.

CEO’s should go first in a wide variety of settings, and sometimes they should be last. It is called situational leadership and servanthood and ……. Well, you get the picture.
Don

Sharlyn Lauby March 5, 2012 at 9:17 am

Thanks for the comment Don! Your reference to Situational Leadership is spot on. It’s a great model.

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