When Leaders Need To Be Followers

By Blair Williams, founder of MemberPress, an all-in-one membership website software for WordPress.

It’s well known that leaders need to wear multiple hats. They have to be marketers, accountants, negotiators, product developers and much more. 

One leadership role that’s not as common is to take the place of a follower. 

The concept that leaders need to step back and become followers is not a new one. In history, great leaders like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi made a marked difference by resisting in quiet ways. They lead millions by putting others before themselves. This style of leadership is known as servant leadership. And as can be evidenced by the way history has played out, its effect is not to be underestimated.

But does stepping back as a leader serve modern business contexts? I think so. 

In fact, there already exist several examples of leaders who focus more on people empowerment and less on being a driving force themselves. 

The idea of a leader as a follower can manifest itself in different ways. Here are some specific times where leaders should consider taking on a follower role and allowing their employees to lead. 

To Focus On The Broader Picture

At some point in every entrepreneur’s journey, there comes the difficult task of stepping away from the day-to-day tasks of building a product or leading every marketing task. 

If you want to grow your business, you need to shift your attention to broader-level issues, such as overall management, innovation and branding of your business. 

To do this, you need to trust the people you put in charge of teams or departments — and follow their lead when they make suggestions or ask for help. 

To Build Loyalty And Empowerment 

My business partner runs a brand that’s 100% powered by remote workers. And yet people are involved and there’s virtually no friction when it comes to getting things done. This happens in a few ways:

• We have a monthly townhall-style meeting where people get to share their ideas, questions and concerns around the company. And these issues are addressed in great depth.

• When people leave a question on a Slack channel, they’re answered immediately, and this helps people feel like they can come forward when they need something.

• My business partner deliberately steps back from meetings and day-to-day tasks and lets teams run. However, the overall direction the business is moving in is still guided through meetings with the responsible heads regularly.

• There’s a lot of time spent talking about why we do what we do. When employees understand a business’s vision and purpose, they’ll make better decisions.

For individual employees, there’s a lot of freedom to work at their own pace and bring up new ideas. They feel like they can play a role in shaping the company, and this is possible when leaders give people the ability to express themselves. 

Also, it’s important to create accountability with weekly or biweekly meetings and with the help of project management tools so employees have clear targets but aren’t micro-managed, either. 

To Get Through Crisis Situations

Crisis situations like the current pandemic are important times for leaders to support other people. 

An interesting study on the impact of leadership styles on employees’ mental well-being found that leaders who exhibited servant leadership behavior helped worried individuals better. 

As a leader, you can offer a sympathetic ear and help people get the tools and support they need. It’s an important time to practice empathy and active listening. And you can boost morale by publicly appreciating the work that people do. In these ways, you show that people matter in your business and help your brand get through difficult times. 

Conclusion

When leaders take on a follower’s role, they get the chance to interact with people and view their business differently. 

There’s more listening and paying attention than directing and speaking. And this creates a space where employees can express their ideas and foster innovation from within. 

We’ve looked at some areas where a leader who steps back a little creates positive benefits in a business. Focus on helping people and creating fulfilling work lives for them and you’ll see a more vibrant team that drives your company forward.


Forbes – Entrepreneurs

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