Good Leaders Follow, Good Followers Lead

I spent this weekend at Oxford visiting Raggy and there was a moment where we were cooking spaghetti bolognese. We started out shaky, both unsure of what to do in the kitchen and how to do it. In the end, it turned out OK, perhaps because we managed to work together well or more likely because spaghetti bolognese is simple as f**k to cook.  Anyway, there was an interesting leader-follower dynamic between us that has inspired this post.

As we got into the kitchen, neither of us wanted to take charge of making dinner. We got into the kitchen with more ingredients than we needed and it took ages to peel and cut the onions. One of us would do something while the other watched and waited till inspiration came before doing something else. Throughout this attempt at cooking, we were both thinking that one of us should just take charge and get this dinner cooked. There were times when one of us would do exactly that, but only for brief moments.

We didn’t care much for the outcome of the food, as long as it filled us up. We knew we could have been more effective but we didn’t care. We just wanted to chat, be gleeful and magically have food in front of us. The interaction did highlight important things about leadership however, and here are two things I learned:

  1. Leadership is not permanent. It is free flowing and temporary. Leadership can change from person to person very quickly. An effective group understands this and is willing to let go of rigidity.
  2. Good leaders are also good followers. Leadership is not permanent, and so it flows from person to person. Therefore a good leader must also be a good follower because he or she will be a follower at one point or another and has to be aware of when someone else is better suited to be the leader and be able to adapt to it.

These role changes can happen at any time, and at varying frequencies. For example, Jill could be leading her team towards a certain objective at the office one day when a fire breaks out that spreads rapidly through the building. At this point Bryan, a new intern, takes charge and organises a quick evacuation of the building. It would be crazy if Jill felt offended and started usurping Bryan. In this example the situation is quite obvious but there are similar ones where life and death might not be so obvious and people’s egos get in the way of good leadership.

A good leader can recognise these situations and decide who would be the best leader for a certain situation. If she doesn’t feel she is the best for one situation she might nominate someone else to take charge, and that itself is good leadership. She leads while following.

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