Inspiration may get people through the door, but commitment is what keeps them engaged over time.
Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about leadership and the dynamic of the relationship between leader and follower. I realize I’ve been insufficiently attentive to just what it is I’m doing when I follow someone.
Am I learning something new? Is the person providing resources for me? Do I share her vision? These aren’t things I’ve distinguished in the past, and as a result I’ve been disappointed in people because I confused leadership with other things.
I’ve decided to be much more thoughtful about who I follow. I’m not going to get on board with someone just because I like her as a person or get swept up by great emotional prose or intellectual jujitsu, even though those might be fun.
I don’t think I’m alone in the way I’ve usually stumbled into following a leader.
Who we choose to follow is a powerful decision that is often overlooked. When we commit to following someone, we do so because there’s something in it for us. That may sound a bit jaded or self-serving, but it isn’t a cynical observation. We follow because we see an opportunity to grow, to become something different, to contribute to something important, and for many other reasons.
The choice to follow is important. Once we commit to follow someone, we are saying yes to her influence. Not in a blank check kind of way, but in that we are more likely to give the person our time and attention when the opportunity arises. When you think about it from the leader’s perspective, that’s quite a privilege to receive from a follower. It’s a gift I take very seriously.
If you believe the relationship between a leader and a follower is important, the decision to follow a leader isn’t one to be taken lightly.
But how to decide?
In the past, I’ve made such decisions solely on the basis of personal advantage, asking myself, “What do I gain by following this person?”
If I’m being really honest with myself, I think maybe even that gives me too much credit. I think it was more like, “Hey, this looks good! Do it!”
These kinds of decisions and pseudo-commitments often didn’t last, and my engagement dissipated as soon as the novelty wore off. (As I said, inspiration fades.) Does that sound familiar?
So if we’re going to be more careful with our time, money, and energy, how do we go about deciding who to follow?
I think it boils down to two things:
- Understanding who the leader is; and
- Knowing what we want.
Now this exercise is not meant to help you identify what you want today. (But if you’re interested in working on that you can start here.)
Instead, right now we’re going to work on how we identify who a leader is, by separating the flash from substance.
Good news: It’s actually a lot easier than you might predict.
To select a good leader who deserves your followship, and to make a good decision that serves your goals, you need to assess a leader’s character.
A leader’s character is who she is – and there are two observable ways to determine that.
If you want to know who the person is, you look at the decisions she makes and the actions she takes.
Only decisions and actions tell you the content of her character.
Only those things – not her passing emotions or thoughts – tell you who she is.
Decisions and actions can’t be spun.
Decisions and actions can’t be leveraged to play on your emotions and thoughts.
I want you to remember this the next time you’re swept up in the emotion of a connection to a leader or when you’re in the midst of learning something new from a leader.
Now, before we go further, I think it’s important to understand the leader’s role in this equation. One of the outputs of leadership is consistency, and the only way to be consistent is to know your commitments.
You want to lead. You want to lead with purpose. You want to make a difference in the world – and that difference, that impact, is a product of doing the work to declare with universal intent what it is you know.
Leading means doing the work to know precisely that to which you’re committed, with the full force of your will.
A declaration of universal intent.
Anything worthwhile is going to take a long time. Declaring what you know, after doing the work and making the commitment, has an attractive power that’s generative.
And so a leader must ask herself, “What is it that I’m willing to declare with universal intent?”
Here at Lead. Gather. Relate., we are committed to the principle that “responsibility is.”
Now I know that sounds funny, but bear with me for a minute. What it means is that responsibility simply exists and that it’s not something to be chosen or window-shopped for.
We have responsibility. Period.
I want you to notice something about the declaration that responsibility is.
It’s a statement without hedge or qualification. I don’t say, “Responsibility is, for me.” Or, “Responsibility is how I think things work.” I say, “responsibility is.”
Also, I don’t prop it up with supporting points. I don’t explain or defend the declaration.
What does this have to do with leadership and following a leader?
Doing the work to declare with universal intent that to which you are committed takes time.
It also takes being open to more than just what you know to be. You have to take it all in—there are no sides. No black-and-white thinking. You have to hold the tension of the paradox for which you are declaring.
In practical terms it means relating without judgment to opposing perspectives while remaining committed to your integrity. It’s not saying yes to what you don’t believe in, but it is relating without condition to what you oppose.
The secret here is that you and your vision gain momentum and credibility by the depth with which you can relate effectively.
This is complex work. It takes the ability to relate to all, to the whole of the matter, not just to the parts we like.
A declaration takes time to cultivate. It isn’t going to pop out of your mouth fully formed.
In fact, to get started you have to state what you’ve got, as you have it, right now.
And then, after that, you continue interacting with your ideas and with others until you commit to your declaration.
It’s a dynamic of declaring, out loud, what you know NOW.
And as a leader, you have to be willing to be wrong.
Now, let’s connect what we know about leadership back to how we select a leader to follow.
I recently heard a speaker trot out the notion that “everyone’s a leader.”
Given what we talked about today, do you think that’s true?
Not all of us lead. Some of us teach. Some of us provide a service. Most do it well and with a sense of excellence, integrity, and care.
All of this is good stuff, but not all of it makes us a leader.
And isn’t that okay?
I think it is, but there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the idea that if we’re learning from someone or inspired by someone, then that person is a leader. A isn’t followed by B in every case.
Being inspired by someone doesn’t mean that person is a leader.
Learning from someone doesn’t mean that person is a leader.
Here’s what distinguishes a leader from a teacher or an inspirational figure:
- Leaders are different in kind because leaders have a vision.
- Leaders know their commitments—their declarations of universal intent.
- Leaders have a relationship with followers that goes beyond transient inspiration and periods of learning.
The relationship between leader and follower is built on a leader’s vision and fueled by a follower’s self-interest.
The interaction is one of mutual interdependence, not solely exchange or transaction.
I see this getting all jumbled up in our culture, especially when we are learning from another person. We often confuse learning with leadership—or at least we do until we reach the point where there’s nothing left to learn or nothing left to teach.
Said another way: in a learning interaction, there’s no dynamic creation going on, and by that I mean there’s no interdependence.
Interdependence means that a follower is adding his or her own special set of capacities to the mix—contributing, defining, declaring, creating. It’s not just the leader who does these things. The followers do it too—that’s interdependence. Something gets created that didn’t exist before and that furthers the visions of both leader and follower.
That last bit is really important—something get’s created that didn’t exist before. It’s not the leader’s work alone, not only her ideas, not only her way of delivering change—it’s the combination of hers and the follower’s.
Here’s an example from my own work.
I want us all to be skilled in relating to others, especially when we encounter a difference we feel threatened by.
I know that if you can do that, there are a whole lot of things that open up for you: job, relationships, etc.
Sarah Kwan came along and said yes to my vision. She committed to taking it all in and then started to create something new. She created Alliance, Lead. Gather. Relate’s community partnership program.
I had not planned, nor was it on my radar, to create an entire division dedicated to working with nonprofit organizations serving the community. I thought the way I was going to achieve my vision was by teaching as many people as possible and then teaching some of those people to teach what we offer.
Sarah took what I had and did something more with it. She is following my vision, but she has added something unique to the mix.
If I were just running a business, as opposed to running a business as the vehicle for achieving my vision, I might not support Sarah’s ideas. I might only entertain ideas that are aligned with where I’m going and only consider outcomes like profit, scalability, and my time. If that were my approach, I might not be thrilled by Sarah’s creative venture. But because I am committed to leadership and a vision, and because her efforts amplify that vision, I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically welcome it.
Do you see the difference?
Do you see how a leader relates differently to a follower from how a business owner might relate?
A business owner isn’t going to dance with the possibilities the way a leader will.
Dance with the possibilities. Now inspiration has come back into the picture, but not in a transient way.
Let’s recap everything we’ve covered.
- We commit to following someone because there’s something in it for us.
- Once we commit to follow someone we are saying yes to that person’s influence.
- Only decisions and actions tell you the content of a leader’s character.
- Leaders have a vision and know their commitments—their declarations of universal intent.
- When leaders and followers interact, something gets created that didn’t exist before.
Now let’s create something, together, that didn’t exist before.