Leaders Leading Leaders

A team of leaders will outperform a team of followers.

Conventional wisdom may say that a leader needs followers. There are numerous sayings warning of the dangers of having too many leaders on a team, such as “too many chiefs, not enough Indians”. Perceptions may be that there should be less leaders and more followers so that a leader can do their job without conflict and that there are people available to carry out the work. 

Could a team made up entirely of leaders succeed? Is it possible to not have enough leaders? Let’s say that the most successful teams are built entirely of leaders. Does that make sense?

I say it does – a team made up of leaders will outperform a team of followers.

A fact is that a leader that seeks followers may not be a great leader themself for it is far easier to lead followers than it is to lead other leaders. “Easier” in these terms is in relation to the skill level required by a leader. To lead followers, one must develop trust and build a position of higher status to be seen as a leader. To lead leaders; however, one must also do these things but further develop the skills required to listen to and accept conflicting ideas or criticisms. Leaders should actively seek this feedback from their team as such feedback will help to elevate the team’s performance. 

The skills and perspectives of leaders are simply different from those of followers. Much of the friction that can come into a leader/follower dynamic can be attributed to this fundamental miss in understanding.

Below I will make the case that a team of leaders will far exceed the performance of a team of followers through looking at three key characteristics that differ between leaders from followers:

Ownership

The most significant key characteristic of a leader is their understanding and application of ownership in both their perspective and acceptance of responsibility. Ownership means that anything and everything that falls under one’s given responsibilities as well as anything that comes in close proximity to those responsibilities is the leader’s to address. Whether they are the best equipped to handle a specific incident, whether they are trained or qualified, whether they are able to delegate the task to someone else, a leader will take ownership of the situation and see to it’s resolution. There are no hard limits to a leader’s responsibilities and they understand that as a leader, they are responsible for the success of the team rather than the success of only their assignment. 

This shift from self-performance to team-performance is founded in a leader’s ability to understand and buy into the team’s mission. A leader understands the importance of supporting the team’s mission and they will understand that this may require one to step outside of their comfort zones or to overstep a perceived boundary if they see an opportunity to address an issue that will ultimately impact the team. 

Ownership of one’s part within the team and within the mission takes on a different meaning when talking to a leader. A leader’s role in the team becomes less about specific responsibilities and more about success of a discipline. This shift in perspective invests an individual to mission success rather than task success. This change in perspective is difficult to foster with followers. While followers may be able to accept responsibility and also understand the team’s objective, followers have a difficult time stepping outside of the lines and stepping into different roles without being directed to do so. Followers lack the perspective to see how the dynamic of the team and of a situation shifts and ultimately the impacts that this shifting will have on the team’s success. 

This lack of perspective stems from the fact that a follower is not tasked to develop such perspective. As a follower, reliance is placed upon the leader of the group to provide direction. It must be understood that leaders are not perfect and cannot be vigilant and aware of all outside threats. Leaders rely on their team to keep their eyes open and scan the surroundings for such opportunities to head off issues before they turn into larger problems. Followers are less equipped to do this than leaders are.

It is in the interest of a leader and of the larger team that leaders are developed throughout the ranks to take advantage of the strength of ownership. 

Critical Thinking

Leaders are required to think critically to perform their jobs and to be effective. Leaders develop the skill to take in a lot of information, process and analyze, and synthesize a response or plan that will progress the team’s objective further. This all requires critical thinking – a “trust but verify” approach. 

A leader’s perspective to external stimuli is approached from the perspective of “does this make sense?” and “how does this align with the team’s goals?”. These questions will direct a leader’s next move and their response to the information. Leaders question frequently to ensure understanding of the situation and the information. This leads back to ownership; a leader feels the responsibility to make the correct decision not for only themself, but for the team’s objective and mission. 

An effective leader will be influenced less than a follower. Whereas a leader will question to ensure understanding, a follower’s mentality is more vulnerable to external influence and may allow such an individual to stray from the team’s objectives if they perceive they are being instructed by a perceived authority figure. It is in a follower’s nature to follow. 

As a leader, one must rely on their team members to execute on the team’s mission. This execution requires that the team members have the ability to stand up to adversity and make decisions that may be unpopular, but necessary to push the team forward. 

Decentralized Command

A team large enough will be unable to be managed effectively by a single leader. This is why militaries, corporations, and companies all make use of a hierarchy in their leadership structure. As explained here, the hierarchy of leadership allows each level within the hierarchy to focus on specific tasks that they are best equipped to handle in both skill and perspective. 

A hierarchy of this kind requires decentralized command (all credit for this term to Jocko) to make the most effective use of people and resources. Decentralized command is the idea that leadership is found and practiced at all levels of the organization. With a strong fundamental understanding of the organization’s procedures and mission goals, leaders at all levels have the latitude to make decisions that will allow them to carry out their part in supporting the larger objective. These decisions are the tactics that each leader at each level will use to effectively execute their own specific objectives.

This idea of decentralized command flows down to the lowest members on the totem pole. A team built of leaders will train their people and allow even the newest member of a team to make the decisions required to fulfill their role. 

When a team of leaders make use of decentralized command in this way, the team benefits from the unique perspectives and skills of the team members at all levels. This is the effective use of diversity that companies today attempt to foster. Decentralized command – empowering all members of the team to make decisions in support of the team’s objectives – is the most direct way to capitalize on the diversity of the team’s skills, backgrounds, and experiences. 

Wrap Up

The picture that many have of having “too many leaders”; the internal disagreement and differences of opinion that plague opposing leadership, is a reality only when dealing with underdeveloped leaders. Strong leaders that understand the team’s objectives understand that the benefit and success of the team is more important than being right. 

Leaders that understand their role in supporting the team’s vision can assume the roles required by the team and do their part in leading what is within their realm to accomplish with the methods and practices they see fit.

This speaks to the importance of the skill and strength of the most senior member of leadership in developing and clearly communicating the team’s objectives to the rest of the team allowing and empowering all members of the team to lead. 

Strong leaders build and lead leaders. Those leaders that seek followers are missing the point.

Yours in strength,

-Jersey

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