To Be a Good Leader is to be a Good Follower

By October 29, 2019 No Comments

By T. Perry Bowers

I recently wrote a blog about how to be a good student. If you follow this series, you’ll see it at some point. This blog has some similarities, but it’s also a little different – I want to talk about leading and following, rather than teaching and learning.

I’ve hired a lot of folks in my time. I’ve hired people older than me, barely out of high school, in all gender preferences, colors, shapes and sizes. To a large degree, age, sex, body type and race doesn’t matter to me. We all have one thing in common: our pride, otherwise known as our ego.

Have you ever wondered what role ego plays in leadership?  To be a good leader you might think it is necessary to hold onto your ego, whereas perhaps a follower needs to let it go? Well, in fact I’ve found it’s the same for both roles. Regardless of whether you’re leading a group or following a leader the ego has got to go.

I’m not the most humble person in the world. I’m also not a great leader. But I have had some success leading projects, teams, businesses and even ceremonies. The greatest success comes when I put aside any bravado or pushiness.

To lead successfully you need a certain degree of confidence. You can’t be questioning your own ability all the time. Confidence is very different to ego or pride. Confidence is not afraid of criticism. Ego despises it. Confidence doesn’t compare itself with others. But pride can’t stand to be one-upped. Confidence allows the process to flow and unfold.  It is willing to be flexible. If you are confident it’s likely your leadership is always evolving. Pride, on the other hand, is rigid. Ego is stiff.

If you want to be a good employee (follower) you need to let your ego melt away. The boss has a way they want things done and your job is to do things that way. Sometimes employees see things bosses don’t – a way the business can improve, for example. There’s a time and place to surface those weaknesses. Maybe there is a formal way of reviewing the functions of the business.  If so, use it.  Never point out a business weakness in front of a client. That would be your ego at work.

The business you work for is your life blood. It feeds you. As an employee, you’re wise to remember that.  Respect all that has gone into building it.  Creating a business that makes money isn’t easy. As a follower it’s wise to honor the business idea and purpose – even if you do have a hard time respecting the boss.

Your boss is a function of the business. They may have blind spots. But they also see more than you – they see behind closed doors and they take the heat from customers, clients and their own boss.   Even the owner of the business has to answer to higher institutions. A board, the IRS, local institutions such as the Fire Department, zoning, regulations, unions, landlords, etc. are all putting pressure on the boss. They don’t always have time to explain the inner workings of the business to every employee. They need to get things done. That’s why you were hired.

So follow nicely! Support the business and do the things demanded of you. Make the boss happy by doing what they want, when they want it and everything will be much easier for everyone. There is a disclaimer here of course – if you are being abused and/or mistreated, you need to stand up and ensure your rights are protected.  But there is a big difference between abuse and high expectations so make sure you know that difference.  Good bosses will often have high expectations and demand you give them your best.

This same advice applies to bosses and leaders. Leave your ego behind. You’re never going to win against the IRS. Trust me, I’ve tried. They are too big, powerful and dare I say, corrupt, to fight. Do as they say to do. It might not be in line with constitutional law, but in order to survive in business, you have to play the IRS’ game.

Other institutions can be just as powerful. The Fire Department has the power to shut you down. Do what they say, put your ego in check and play along. If you try to buck that system you will lose.

The most important aspect of your business is your customers.  You need to follow them.  Ask “What do they need, what are they complaining about, how can I make them happy? It’s exactly like having a boss.

Anyone can pick up their phone and give you a nasty review that could impact your sales for years so do everything you can to neutralize negative feedback.

Here’s an example.  I have an eBay business buying and selling musical equipment. Not long ago, I sold a guitar pedal to a guy in Texas. Something wasn’t quite right about the listing. I had accidentally misrepresented the pedal slightly. He complained and I offered a full refund for the pedal, including shipping both ways.  This is what I always do if anyone is dissatisfied with my eBay gear.

He told me he’d be happy with a partial refund and he wanted to keep the pedal. But I don’t give partial refunds, only full ones.  (There is a big eBay scam where buyers hold the threat of negative feedback over the seller’s head in order to get a discount). He didn’t want a full refund or to return the pedal because he actually loved it – but he decided to give me negative feedback.

That one piece of negative feedback could impact my future sales so I tried to make a deal with him. We went back and forth a little bit but he seemed determined not to budge. Finally, I offered him one hundred dollars to remove the feedback (that’s almost the total value of the pedal). Of course he took it. It hurt. My ego had a very difficult time doing it. But I had to do it for the business. I put the business first, not my feelings.

The point is, even when we’re the boss, we are never really at the top. There are always forces out of our control to which we must answer. If you’re currently at the bottom of the totem pole in your job, you might take solace in the fact that you can take orders without having to think too much. Maybe someday you will have all the benefits as well as the drawbacks of being a boss.

If you’re the boss now, remember what is was like to be the employee. Taking orders isn’t always easy. Treat your people with respect and allow them opportunities to lead. Tell them what the business needs. Their job is to follow and yours is to lead. Do it benevolently and with confidence.