This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
Leadership isn’t always so cut and dry. There are times when leaders must follow, and when followers must lead. Your ability to know the difference will make you an indispensable leader.
As the leader, it’s not your job to make every single decision, nor should it be. But it is your job to make every decision pertaining to who is best suited to make the best decision. When you are in charge, there will be certain situations when someone else on your team is better suited to take the lead, or when it is necessary to recognize that someone else might have a better plan. In these cases, be aware of the situation, step back, and let others lead. In an abundance of leadership, it’s okay to follow.
On the flipside, when you’re not in charge, there will be times when leadership is absent, insecure, or flat-out wrong. In these moments, the bystander effect of leadership will be on full display and everyone will be waiting for someone to step up and lead. It may not always be a good idea to speak out, especially if the lack of leadership isn’t yet recognized by everyone. But in most cases, letting your actions do the talking—leading by example—is all you need to do. In a scarcity of leadership, it’s okay to lead.
In each of these scenarios, there is a balance to be struck. Your awareness of the balance within a power structure is a vital key to leadership and will serve you far more than the sheer willingness to lead. This awareness is the mark of an indispensable leader. When the pendulum swings too far one way, it is your job to help calm it and return it to the center.
In the early days of running my restaurant, there was a unique situation where I had to both lead and follow simultaneously. I had very little experience in the kitchen, so my credibility and ability to lead the kitchen staff would be severely hampered without a trustworthy head chef to rely on. The problem was that the chef I had was selfish, lazy, and unfocused–the opposite of indispensable. Since it was the owner’s decision to hire the chef, I knew I didn’t have many options. But I also knew we had another cook on the staff with a lot of experience, who was more focused and hungrier than the lazy chef. Although I was the general manager, my lack of kitchen experience would have made it difficult to step in and take control of the kitchen myself. So, I decided to play to the strengths of the reliable cook in an attempt to motivate the lazy head chef to either step up into the responsibility or step out of the role altogether. Through my combination of direct and indirect pressure over several weeks, the chef finally decided the job was not for him, and he resigned. The reliable cook became the head chef, and the restaurant flourished as a result.
There are two lessons to be learned from this story. First, one crucial rule that must be followed at all times is never rush in to lead. By hanging back and allowing a situation to develop, the indispensable leader accomplishes three things:
- You ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding who is taking the lead.
- You give yourself more time to gather enough information to make a better decision.
- You can make sure that multiple people aren’t jumping in to lead at the same time.
This last point is critical, because when you have “too many cooks in the kitchen,” it can grind your operation to a halt. Second, when you lack leverage in a situation, never discount the power of agency. I couldn’t fire the owner’s chef outright, but I could take an alternate path by empowering someone else who was going to take the job seriously. This required awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of my team, recognition of who could step up to lead, and the humility to allow that individual to actually take the lead. While I didn’t have leverage, I looked outside the box to give the players in the situation more agency to make the decision for me. And in the end, the decision that I wanted to make all along was the lazy chef’s decision alone.
Leadership isn’t always so cut and dry as they make it seem in textbooks. There will be times when leaders must follow, and when followers must lead. Leadership is not only about knowing how to lead, but knowing when to lead. Your ability to know the difference will make you indispensable.